Lock & Load

Five young guns had the USC Trojans once again aiming for the final four in 2000

Don Liebig
April Ross came into USC as one of the top recruits in her class.

From the December 2000 issue of Volleyball

In this season’s first episode of the NBC hit political drama, The West Wing, the White House is seen hosting a national championship women’s volleyball team. The group of tall, young players and their smiling coach have gathered around Vice President John Hoynes for the presentation of a team jersey when he hears the stunning news that there has been an assassination attempt on President Jeb Bartlet. Before the team is lost in the chaos you catch a glimpse of the jersey. Written on the back is HOYNES and the number 1.

Across the front: “USC.”

Before you scoff at the fictitious scenario, know The West Wing won a record nine Emmys – including two for writing – and has a reputation for its uncanny accuracy in portraying the political intrigue on Capitol Hill. But assassination attempts on a president named Jeb are one thing. USC winning a national championship? Hasn’t happened for nearly two decades. The team hasn’t even reached the final four in 15 years.

Then again, this is Hollywood, where storylines are created from headlines and real life emulates fiction on a daily basis.

In early September, the Trojans, bolstered by five touted freshman, were proving to be more than a screenwriter’s caprice with their strong play. After the team’s first seven matches of the 2000 season, the Trojans hadn’t lost a game. Their national ranking: No. 1.

*****

Under a sky that’s so pale it’s nearly white, the USC campus in downtown Los Angeles is beginning to bake under a typical late summer sun. It’s not quite noon, but already most people interested in volleyball were no doubt heading for the beach a few miles west. But upstairs in an old brick building – think the SoCal version of Ivy League – the USC volleyball team is playing the alumni in its first public appearance of the year.

Though it’s not yet sweltering in North Gym, it doesn’t figure to take more than an hour or two before the fabled home of the Trojans earns that description. North Gym, scheduled to be replaced by both a new practice facility and a new playing arena when the state-of-the-art USC Events Center opens in 2002, is a snug, slightly creaky and certainly not air-conditioned old place. It has a low roof that comes into play about once a match and seats around 500 people on those pull-out-from-the-wall wooden bleachers that were technological marvels early in the last century.

Still, it’s something of a hallowed shrine in volleyball history. It was home to the Debbie Green-inspired Trojans during their AAIW national championship seasons of 1976 and 1977 as well as the Cathy Stukel-led Trojans that won the AAIW title in 1980 and the first NCAA national championship in 1981.

The 1977 team, which along with Green included future Olympians Terry Place, Sue Woodstra, Debbie Landreth and Carolyn Becker, went 38-0. It was the first women’s collegiate volleyball team to go undefeated, a feat unmatched until Long Beach State went 36-0 in 1998.

Which brings up the ‘90s, today and the first serve of this Trojan millennium. Working the alums under the fading banners that mark USC’s four national crowns, freshmen Toni Anderson, April Ross, Katie Olsovsky, Nicole Davis and Kelli Lantz look cool and confident. Humbled by history? Hardly. Then again, why should they be awed by the tradition of the place? When USC won its last national championship, none of them had been born.

*****

The Sydney Olympics and the subsequent arrival of USA National Team Coach Mick Haley as the Trojans’ new mentor was little more than a month away, but two-year “interim” Coach Jerritt Elliott doesn’t seem bothered by the label at the conclusion of the alumni match. Any disappointment he might have personally about his looming demotion is lost in the first performance of his Fab Five.

“These players put a smile on my face every day,” Elliott says. “They’re not normal freshmen. They’re gym rats who have played a tremendous amount of volleyball. All of them have played on top clubs with great coaches, so their knowledge of the game is already at a very high level.”

Elliott, a high school teammate of beach gold medalist Kent Steffes and the Pac-10 Coach of the Year in 1999 after leading USC to a surprising 21-9 record, has high expectations for the Trojans. The freshmen class, Volleyball Magazine’s top-ranked group, has meshed well already with All-American candidates Jennifer Pahl, Janae Henry and Antoinette Polk.

“They bring a lot of versatility, ball control and speed to the court,” he says. “With our solid returning players, by November this could be a very special team.”

Here’s a closer look at the Trojan thoroughbreds:

Toni Anderson

As superlatives go, “phenomenal” sometimes seems a bit of an over-exaggeration. But Anderson’s last two coaches emphasize the word when describing the 5’10” setter from Anaheim.

“She has a phenomenal ability to understand the game,” says Elliott.

“Toni is a phenomenal setter – I was so impressed,” says USA Junior National Team Coach Deitre Collins.

The Toni Anderson phenomenon started with her mastery of the fundamentals, which she first learned in grade school from her mother Linda, a former Cal State Fullerton player and long-time referee. It blossomed at Esperanza High School, where she was an All-CIF honoree and co-MVP of the rugged Sunset League. And it continued in her first month in North Gym, where her performance prompted Elliott to install a 6-2 offense that allows Anderson to share setting duties with talented sophomore Tracy Lindquist.

“Right away, Toni showed she could make great decisions and she puts the ball right where it should be,” says Elliott. “Mentally, she always seems to know what we’re trying to accomplish. Her volleyball I.Q. is very high.”

Collins, who started Anderson on the Junior National Team’s summer trip to Cuba, agrees: “We gave her lots of information in a very short amount of time and she handled it very well. I’m sure USC feels lucky to have her.”

The feeling is mutual for Anderson, the first of the Fab Five to become a Trojan. “Other schools were recruiting me, but I committed early because it just felt right,” Anderson says. “I wanted something with tradition that would stay with me after four years. At USC, it’s a way of life.”

Anderson’s way of life these days is feeding sets to players she used to dread seeing in the gym.

“I played April many times in club and I hated going up against her,” says Anderson. “I played against Katie and Kelli, too. It’s great finally having them on my side of the net.”

Nicole Davis

Davis has a black belt in karate and is one of the most focused players in North Gym. As you might imagine, it’s not a coincidence.

“I trained six days a week, three hours a day when I was competing nationally in karate,” says Davis, a solid 5’6” defensive specialist. “Karate is all about discipline and focus. You really have to push hard all the time to accomplish positive results and I learned a lot about myself.”

Elliott quickly learned that Davis, a star outside hitter at Lincoln High School in Stockton where she finished her career with 705 kills and 103 aces, has the right attitude for her sometimes-frustrating new position.

“Nicole’s very competitive and wants the ball in crucial situations,” he says. “Her quickness is tremendous – she’s probably the fastest athlete I’ve ever trained – and she gets a lot of quality touches. Put it together and she could develop into the best defensive specialist in the country, no question.”

That’s the plan for Davis, who at first wrestled with the idea of trying out with hometown Pacific – “because my mom really wanted me to” – before walking on with the Trojans and quickly earning a scholarship.

“I want to make an impact,” she says. “It’s a team sport with individual responsibilities. I’ll play any role. I just want to contribute any way I can to the team.”

Kelli Lantz

Basketball would appear to be the game of choice in the Lantz family. Steven Lantz, the 6’7” patriarch, played basketball at Washington, and Kelli’s 6’6” brother Brett is currently playing at UC Davis. But hoops just didn’t seem to have the same allure for the 6’3” middle blocker.

“I enjoy basketball but I’ve always had a passion for volleyball,” says Lantz, who led Centennial High School in Bakersfield to two CIF Central Section championships. “I love everything about it. I even look forward to every practice.”

That attitude has paid quick dividends.

“From a technical standpoint, Kelli needed to show the most improvement but she has had the fastest learning curve,” Elliott says. “She works every day and has already made significant improvement. She will be a valuable contributor this year and has All-American potential in the future. Her ceiling is way up there.”

Playing behind Pahl, who hit a team-high .293 last season, Lantz saw action in only four of the Trojans’ first 15 games. However, it was enough to provide a glimpse of things to come as she hit .444 and recorded three blocks.

“With the players we have, obviously I’ll have to work hard to get a place on the court,” says Lantz, who picked USC over Arizona after hearing Anderson and Ross were heading for L.A. “There’s a big jump from high school and I knew the program was going to be strong. It’s been exciting, though. I’m loving it so far.”

Katie Olsovsky

A summer being tutored by Kim-O was more than okay for Katie-O.

“I just loved working with Kim Oden on the Junior National Team,” says Olsovky, an improbably quick 6’3” middle blocker that many coaches say plays like a slightly taller version of Oden, the four-time Stanford All-American. “She’s played at the highest level, been successful at the highest level, and I really learned a lot from her and Coach (Deitre) Collins. It was inspiring being around them.”

Olsovsky has always been inspired to succeed in volleyball, her basic “get better game-by-game, day-by-day” approach leading to lots of early success. She won two CIF Player of the Year awards at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrence and her Ichiban club team finished first at the 1999 Nike Junior Olympics. Playing with the 1998 Volleyball Festival champion Spoilers club team, Olsovsky seemed to be the best player at the huge tournament – as a 16-year-old.

“Katie has had wonderful coaching and already plays at a high level,” says Collins, another former All-American middle. “She had some trouble with shin splints and had to battle through some tough conditions down in Cuba. I think she feels as though she let the team down a little, but she played well. Her upside is just huge.”

Still hampered by her painful shins, Olsovsky shrugged it off and played about half of every game during the Trojans’ 5-0 start. Subbing in with Anderson when Lindquist rotates to the front row, Olsovsky was hitting .368 while averaging 1.93 kills and one block a game.

“With our national team experience together, it’s really exciting playing with Toni,” Olsovsky says. “She’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Olsovsky was the focal point in a classic L.A. recruiting war, choosing USC over UCLA at the last minute.

“It’s a smaller school and I just felt a little more comfortable,” she says. “I’d like to be a part of a new SC championship tradition.”

April Ross

If the Trojans advance to the final four, there definitely will be April in December, since Ross was penciled in as a starter from the moment she committed to USC.

“From an offensive standpoint, there’s nothing she can’t do,” Elliott says of his 6’2” outside hitter. “She’l be one of our primary passers and because she can hit such a wide variety of sets, she’ll play some in the middle and on the right, too.”

Perhaps even more than Olsovsky, Ross has an unquestionable volleyball pedigree. At volleyball powerhouse Newport Harbor in Newport Beach, Ross was a four-year started and a two-time CIF Player of the Year for Coach Dan Glenn, who had her play every position including setter. She also played five seasons with the vaunted Orange County Volleyball Club under fiery Coach Charlie Brande, who calls her “the most well-rounded player I’ve ever had.” Ross led Orange County teams to three Volleyball Festival championships in three different age groups.

“Having such demanding coaches really prepared me for college,” says Ross, who was averaging 3.8 kills per game for the Trojans after the first two weeks. “Charlie emphasized defense, speed and transition, which is the big adjustment you have to make after high school. Coach Glenn drilled us in the fundamentals. It was a great combination.”

Ross thinks Elliott and Haley will form a great coaching combo, too. “It has been a great experience so far and I like our potential with Coach Haley coming in after the Olympics,” she says. “Hopefully, with hard work, we can reach our potential.”

Originally published in December 2000

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