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Tough task for BYU volleyball: USC Trojans

LOS ANGELES — One of the perennial powers in women's collegiate volleyball stands between BYU and a spot in the NCAA regional finals.

Sixth-seeded USC, twice selected as the nation's top-ranked team this year, plays the Cougars in Friday night's regional semifinals at 8 p.m. MT in USC's Galen Center.

The Trojans (28-5) have played in the NCAA tournament the past 13 seasons, reached the Final Four six times during that span and won NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003.

"They're going to be a little different from the teams we competed against in the West Coast Conference," BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. "They're going to be a little more physical a little bigger, taller, stronger across the board."

USC finished second in the Pac-12 Conference in hitting (.287), kills (14.79 per set), aces (145) and defense against opponents' hitters (.174) while taking third place in digs (13.68 per set).

The Trojans' Natalie Hagglund amassed a conference-high 604 digs (5.3 per set) in being named the Pac-12's libero of the year. Teammate Samantha Bricio from Guadalajara, Mexico, led the conference with 80 aces and joined Alexis Olgard (.437, 142 blocks) on the all-conference first team.

USC also has two freshmen playing pivotal roles. Outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu, the Pac-12's freshman of the year, finished with 365 kills (3.32), a .339 average, and 93 total blocks. Alice Pizzasegola from Italy, another member of the conference's all-freshman team, passed for 646 assists (5.67).

"With a team like USC, you've got to put the pressure on them," Olmstead said. "You've got to try to dig them and block them, and receive serve well."

BYU (24-6), the WCC co-champion, counters with freshman Whitney Young, the conferences blocking leader (1.59 per set) who also hits .417. Complementing Young are outside hitter Alexa Gray (454 kills), setter Camry Godfrey (1,264 assists, 254 digs, 30 aces) and outside hitter Tambre Haddock (403 kills).

"We need to stay clean and be aggressive," Gray said. "If they score a few points, we'll come back even harder. If they're up, we're going to keep fighting. If we're up, we're going to keep fighting even harder."

The Cougars also bring a reinforced sense of confidence after defeating 11th-seeded Hawaii in Honolulu on Saturday night to reach the regional semifinals.

"We've gone into hostile environments against great opponents and we've competed very well," Olmstead said. "If we can just shore up our side, I like what we can do."