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A Group Effort

Five who led USC to title seek to leave with one more

December 05, 2003|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

It started with Toni Anderson. She was the first of USC's volleyball recruits to commit four years ago.

Then came April Ross, Kelli Lantz, Katie Olsovsky and Nicole Davis, giving USC five California high school standouts in a recruiting class it hoped would lead its program to national prominence.

And it worked, just as designed.

USC last year won its first national title in more than 20 years, and the 29-0 Trojans are top-ranked this season as they open the NCAA playoffs tonight against New Hampshire at Lyon Center.

"We have had a remarkable run," Davis said. "One of the biggest reasons why I came here ... was the group of girls that I was coming in with. I knew that the five of us had the opportunity to make a huge impact on the program. That's what we've worked for every day."

To say that the core of the team is close is an understatement. They know each other so well it's not uncommon for one to finish another's sentence. It's a chemistry that grew out of friendship.

Ross is the most decorated player of the group. She was player of the year in the Pacific 10 Conference and is a four-time first-team all-conference selection at outside hitter. Her teammates say Ross doesn't rank among USC's career leaders in kills, attacks and service aces because she took practices lightly.

"She's not energetic or peppy but yet, she just has so much drive," Anderson said of Ross, a front-runner for national player of the year. "She is always focused. Her personality is shown through her example of play."

Lantz, a middle blocker, is the team energizer. Although she hasn't played as much as her four classmates throughout her career, Lantz's role is considered just as important as the one Ross fills.

"She is the most outgoing, friendly and loudest type you know," Anderson said of Lantz. "I always look to her for energy."

Olsovsky, an All-American middle blocker, is the quiet one. On the court, her intensity stands out as much as her hitting and blocking ability. Olsovsky is also the one who blends in with the group. She may not dominate a lunch table group conversation, but when she does talk, people listen.

"You know you can always count on her," Ross said.

Davis, who will postpone her final semester to join the U.S. national team to train in Colorado Springs, Colo., after the season, is USC's driving force.

"When I want to get fired up and play inspired, I look at Nicole," Anderson said about Davis. "You know that she's going to be in the moment."

Anderson is considered the leader. As the setter, she plays the role of point guard when USC is on the attack. The passes she tailors for her teammates are what sets USC apart from other programs.

"She is a very good leader," Lantz said about Anderson, her roommate. "Her drive and dedication to the sport is a key."

When Anderson made the decision to sign with USC, the Trojans were not a force in college volleyball.

Jerritt Elliott had succeeded Lisa Love and had the title of interim coach. USC had not advanced beyond a regional final since 1985 and was looking for its first Pac-10 title.

The Trojans finished 21-9 and in third place in the Pac-10 in 1999; they were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA championships. But despite the uncertainty of his tenure, Elliott was able to convince the five standouts to come to USC.

"I think that it was understood, that winning a national championship was the reason why we were coming here," Anderson said.

As freshmen in 2000, they helped USC tie for first in the Pac-10 and advance to the NCAA tournament semifinals.

The following year, Coach Mick Haley joined the team as head coach after working with the U.S. national team, but USC fell to second in the Pac-10 and lost in a regional final.

Last year, though, the Trojans rebounded to go 31-1 and win their first outright Pac-10 title and the program's first national championship since 1981.

In four years with Ross, Lantz, Olsovsky, Davis and Anderson in the lineup, USC's record is 114-8.

All that's left is to go out on top. In the past, where there's been a will, there's been a way.

"We've all been in sync with what our goals have been," Davis said, "and that's been important."

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