When he was a kid, Bill Ferguson would surf waves for longer than it takes him to walk from his office to center court in the Galen Center on the campus of Southern California. Come May 3, he and his Trojans sure hope they’re hanging 10 in that same building for the NCAA Men’s Volleyball National Championship.
|* – Record as of April 23, 2012|
Talk about riding a wave: The Trojans, after beating Cal State Northridge on Saturday in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament quarterfinals, have won 18 matches in a row and 20 of 21 since opening the season 3-4. They’re ranked No. 1 in the nation after repeating as MPSF regular-season champions.
It represents quite a lofty position for Ferguson, the 41-year-old who actually gave up volleyball for surfing right after high school, went into the surfing business before he was 20, only to return to volleyball and capitalize on a lifetime of connections and coaching knowledge.
Accordingly, USC (23-4) has risen to the top behind such players as senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, the MPSF player of the year, and setter Micah Christenson, the MPSF freshman of the year. Their successes this season were accelerated by a bit of serendipity that actually saw Ciarelli leave the team last fall for the Pan Am Games. One of the coaches on that team was Jeff Nygaard, the three-time Olympian and USC assistant coach.
“The rest of the makeup of our team were guys who are upperclassmen but have been competing against guys who were starting for three or four years ahead of them,” Ferguson said, recalling the Trojans gathering last fall. “And we had a group of talented freshmen and sophomores.”
They had to step up without Ciarelli, a 6-foot-6 serving machine from Huntington Beach, Calif.
“What it did was take our most talented athlete and put him in the most challenging environment he’s ever been in, playing against the Brazilan senior national team, and so on and so forth,” Ferguson said. “And it gave Tony a broader perspective and pushed his limits. At the same time it gave us two weeks for the rest of our roster to build and train and get more reps and kind of develop their own identity on the court.”
Ferguson said the fall held no striking changes, but “it basically solidified (senior middle) Steve Shandrick to be more vocal. It helped Maddison (McKibbin, a junior opposite) mentor some of the younger guys. It allowed Micah to connect more with the other hitters.”
Ferguson said Christenson, from Honolulu, is “probably one of the top setting prospects we’ve had in this country” since the USA produced a bumper crop in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Christenson has already played on youth national indoor teams, McKibben and junior setter-hitter Jeff Carlson have played together in the World University Games beach competition, and freshman outside hitter Cristian Rivera is in the Puerto Rican national-team program.
They’re all coached by a guy who took a less than traditional path to one of the best jobs in the sport. Ferguson grew up in volleyball. His father, Tom, played for the legendary Burt DeGroot at Santa Monica College where his chief rival on the court was none other than Al Scates. Scates is retiring this season after 50 years as the only coach UCLA has ever known.
Tom Ferguson and Bill’s mom, Susie, are both USC graduates. And they also started the Palisades boys club volleyball team, with whom Bill’s brother, Bob, won a 17s national-title in 1984. So volleyball was ingrained in Bill Ferguson’s being.
“I got to watch a national-championship club team be trained from stem to stern when I was 14 years old. I got to listen to them talk,” Ferguson said, citing such SoCal volleyball legends as DeGroot, Scates, Marv Dunphy, and many of his parents’ friends who were football coaches. He said much of what he knows about recruiting today comes from paying attention to his elders as a little boy.
But he also loved surfing. For that matter, there’s a board and other surfing memorabilia in his USC office, the one just 50 yards from center court in the Galen Center.
“I was ultra-competitive in any team sport I was in as a little kid and always felt like I was the most intense guy and cared more than anybody else,” Ferguson said. “The appeal of surfing was there was no one else on my team and it was just me and I could channel that competitiveness and drive and it was only me. That was a tremendous learning experience for me.”
He said that Body Glove started sponsoring his surfing endeavors when he was a sophomore in high school and that he also had an in with Reebok. But by the time he was a senior in high school, the conflicts between volleyball and major surfing competitions were getting tough to handle.
“I figured at that point I had to fish or cut bait. I had been around volleyball my whole life and been around team sports my whole life and really wanted to see what the surfing gig had to offer. I was really intrigued by it and decided that (Junior Olympics) after my senior year was going to be the end of it and I was going to go into surfing full time.”
He went to Santa Monica College, not with an eye on moving on to a four-year school, but simply to learn.
“My parents saw that I wasn’t the average kid just going to the beach and going surfing, that there was a process to it because of the mentors I had, they were OK with it,” Ferguson said. “I took classes that were practical. I took business law, marketing, econ, political science, I took a public speaking class. I thought that maybe one day I might be a surf announcer or volleyball announcer. So I took anything that I thought could help me in the business world.”
It paid off, but oddly enough, after making the national amateur surfing team, Ferguson walked away from competition at age 21 to take a full-time job.
“My whole idea was to get a job in the surf business,” he said matter-of-factly. “I was at a crossroads and took the job.”
But volleyball would beckon again.
In the summer of 1991, he went back to his old club and coached 14s, a group that produced quite a few major college players. The next year, things came full circle and his parents got back into it. The club, Reebok Palisades, was thriving, winning a 16s national title in 1993, Ferguson was still working in the surf business, but nothing stays the same in sports.
In the fall of 1995, Ferguson moved over to coach for the Los Angeles Athletic Club where he had more success. And then in 1996, the plot thickened. That summer, USC coach Jim McLaughlin left for Kansas State and Pat Powers took over at USC. He hired Ferguson as an assistant.
Ferguson said he was making “a whopping 2500 bucks, I think a thousand dollars of Nike stuff and football tickets,” he said, giggling at the thought. “And I was thrilled to do it.” It helped that by then he had a fulltime job with the L.A. Athletic Club. What’s more, he had gotten out of surfing, even making an ill-fated attempt at producing a volleyball magazine. It lasted four issues.
He left USC after the 1998 season and in 2002 – the same year he earned his college degree — started the Southern California Volleyball Club that he still runs. In 2005, Ferguson said he was in the mix for other coaching jobs but then-USC coach Turhan Douglas convinced him to re-join the Trojans.
After the 2006 season, Douglas got out of the sport and Ferguson took over.
“He had five kids and was driving nearly two hours each way to work,” Ferguson said. “He wanted to make sure he left the place better than when he got it. He left to go spend time with his family and they hired me.”
The self-proclaimed former beach bum had immediate success. In 2007, USC had its best finish in six years. In 2008 the Trojans beat UCLA twice in the same season for the first time since 1991 and continued to make positive strides.
Then in 2009 Ferguson was named the AVCA and VBall Magazine national coach of the year for a season that saw USC go 21-11 and win the MPSF tournament title. USC lost in five sets to UC Irvine in the NCAA Championships final. USC might have taken a step back in 2010, but last season, Ferguson was named the MPSF 2011 coach of the year. The Trojans finished 23-4, which included a loss in the national semifinals to UC Santa Barbara.
And his club success continued as Ferguson’s SCVC 17s won the boys national championship.
Now all the elements are in place to possibly win that elusive NCAA title. His team struggled early on. After beating Cal Baptist, Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge, the Trojans lost back-to-back matches to now-No. 4 BYU, lost to now-No. 2 UC Irvine and, after bouncing back with a couple of victories, fell to now-No. 5 UCLA in three.
But Ferguson said early in the season this was the most cohesive team he’d ever had at USC.
“This team has probably one of the highest volleyball IQs of all the groups we’ve had here and probably enjoys practicing and learning more and is really invested in the process,” Ferguson said, predicting then that things would be OK.
Two big reasons were Ciarelli and Christenson.
Ciarelli ranks first all-time on the USC serving ace list and this season is first in the nation in aces (.60 per set). He’s fourth in the nation in kills, hitting .303. Last season, Murphy Troy of USC was MPSF player of the year, the first time that a school has produced back-to-back winners since 1999.
Christenson ranks fourth in the nation in assists (10.92 per set), has 154 digs and 64 blocks and is a strong candidate for national freshman of the year.
And Shandrick is tied for 20th nationally in blocks (1.08 per set) and is hitting .434.
“I’m really proud of the program,” Ferguson said. “We won the regular-season title in the toughest conference in college athletics for the second year in a row. I’m really proud of the staff and players. That’s a heck of an accomplishment. Last year, we were ahead of the pack a little bit and just trying to keep everybody at bay. This year, there are five teams that can win on any given night, so to walk out of there as the regular-season champion with such great teams – ourselves, Stanford, Irvine, BYU and UCLA — I mean we’ve all played each other tough this year and it’s an honor represent our conference as champion. It’s something that’s really neat.”
And if all goes according to plan, they’ll play four more matches in the Galen Center, including Thursday’s MPSF semifinals against UC-Irvine, the MPSF final, and then two matches in the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships, which would put a cap on a season any ex-surfer would enjoy.