<
>

espnW Volleyball Player Of The Year: USC's Samantha Bricio

Samantha Bricio, the espnW volleyball player of the year, is the first Trojan to breach the 2,000-kill mark and only the second from USC to score 700 points in a single season. John McGillen

The espnW national volleyball player of the year also happens to be the sport's biggest rock star.

USC senior Samantha Bricio, a two-time All-American outside hitter and current Pac-12 player of the year, captains a Trojans team that earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament behind a 30-2 record. Bricio is a name that resonates beyond volleyball die-hards.

"We have people who drive 100 to 150 miles to see her play," USC coach Mick Haley said. "She will not leave until she signs every single autograph. She's the best ambassador for all the little kids who look up to her as a role model."

Freshman defender Victoria Garrick remembers the afternoon she received the text from her future teammate -- simple words that sent her into hysteria.

"I freaked out," Garrick recalled. "I get this text from a random number, and it says, 'Hi Victoria. If you have any questions about coming this summer, let me know. Sam Bricio.' I was at home, and I ran outside and yelled, 'Mom! Sam Bricio just texted me!' "

The biggest name in the sport added to what already was a decorated collegiate career by improving every part of her game in 2015. She is the first Trojan to breach the 2,000-kill mark and only the second from USC to score 700 points in a single season.

"From her academics to community service to her volleyball skills to the quality of person she is, Sam fits the bill for national player of the year," Haley said.

"She finds a way to score, whether it's attacking, serving or blocking. She gets 2 1/2 to three points serving in a match, and I don't think anybody has been as good at that this last year let alone the last four years."

Much has been made of that hybrid jump float serve -- routinely referred to as the best in the sport. While Bricio has often dubbed the whole motion "an accident" that developed after an ankle injury altered her footwork, opponents call it a nightmare, struggling to pass it given its velocity of nearly 60 mph.

Her offensive prowess that has accounted for 2,005 career kills and 15 double-doubles this season even impresses her brother, Irving, among her role models growing up as he starred on the Mexican senior national team.

"I knew she could be good but didn't think she'd reach this level," Irving admitted. "I mean when she was 5 or 6 years old, I used to play with her and started to teach her to set the ball, but the only thing she wanted to do was to kill the ball as hard as she could to try to win. She'd hit me in the chest in the process."

Samantha, who turned 21 on Nov. 22, was only 17 when she arrived at USC from Guadalajara, Mexico. The youngest to ever play for the Mexican national team showed steady improvement each season, but her best play has come in 2015 when she led a USC team picked to finish fifth in the conference to co-champion in the Pac-12 with Washington.

Bricio leads the NCAA in points (6.18) and aces (0.73) per set and is third in kills per set (5.07). She was chosen Pac-12 offensive player of the week a league-record six times this season in a conference that had seven teams advance to the NCAA tournament. Her nine career selections are second most in conference history.

"This year I'm having more fun, so everything comes easier," Bricio said. "I enjoy being part of this team, they're so special, and I see the coaching staff working as hard as they can so we can be the best we can. I've learned how to enjoy the game more."

Her teammates remain in awe of her cool disposition and poker face after making a "SportsCenter"-worthy play.

"She'll hit the most amazing serve, we're all going crazy, and she'll walk back to her spot like nothing happened," Trojans junior libero Taylor Whittingham said. "Even when she got her record kill the other night, she went back to serve and was the least excited of all of us."

Not that Bricio doesn't show energy on the court.

"When other people do things or make great plays, that's when I see her excited," Whittingham said.

Bricio's focus for each match begins in the locker room when she puts on her black Beats and blares music ranging from Justin Bieber to Calvin Harris at a deafening volume -- so loud, in fact, that nobody has to guess the artist.

"Putting my headphones on and blasting music help me zone into the game," Bricio said. "Being in the locker room with so many people doing so many things -- some people singing and dancing, some talking to each other, doing makeup -- that's a lot going on."

Both on and off court, Bricio, a psychology major who anticipates a career in criminal profiling, has taken her role as captain seriously. Haley noted it's not always easy for peers to hold other peers accountable. But Bricio said she has learned the value of the team doing even the most minute detail the right way, whether it's being five minutes early for anything team related to knowing when and where not to use cellphones.

Garrick remembers having her phone out at a time when they weren't allowed. Bricio called her out.

"Everyone had to run," Garrick said. "I realized after that how serious it is to follow the rules. I respected her more for having us do that because it taught me a lot. Going forward I was able to seriously understand we were in it for each other."

In fact, Bricio can be harder on her teammates than the coaches. She called for 6 a.m. running the day after the bracket was released. Haley opted to overrule her.

"The only reason we are where we are is because of the leadership role she assumed last spring," he said.

All the little things and the big ones -- a 22-match win streak to open the season, a No. 2 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches poll to end it, and hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament -- are part of a run that Bricio and her teammates hope will culminate in USC's first national title since 2003. USC kicks off its NCAA tournament against Cleveland State (26-6) on Thursday.

Bricio, who plans to play overseas after college, hates to talk about the season ending. She confesses, like her brother, she never thought she'd soar to the heights she has as a collegiate player.

"It's all because of my great coaches, from my mom all the way to Mick," she said. "I had no idea how good the program was when I came. When I came here and learned about the program and saw all the pictures, I thought, 'Whoa, I just got myself into something bigger than what I thought.' "

No doubt she has added another meaty chapter to what already was a thick book.