Tomorrow night when the No. 1 USC men’s volleyball team (3-1, 1-0) travels to the Bren Center to face No. 3 UC Irvine (4-1, 1-0) in a rematch of last year’s NCAA final, there will be a lot more at stake than a chance at revenge.
This year’s Trojan team, full of seasoned veterans and battle-tested leaders, understands that an early-season matchup against the Anteaters represents an opportunity to make a lasting statement as they go forward through conference play in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
“The last two seasons UCI ended our season, so we don’t care for the Anteaters too much,” junior outside hitter Tri Bourne said. “If there is going be a statement game this season this is going to be it, and we will make a statement.”
Though last year’s heartbreaking five-set loss to UCI in the national championship left the Trojans with a bitter taste in their mouths, they enter the 2010 season with the loss serving as a source of inspiration. As the team has its sights set squarely on the ultimate prize in collegiate sports, the match that got away last May has motivated the players to become a more disciplined and focused unit this year.
“I think that the main thing for us is having the mindset where we just play our game instead of trying to play better than we already are,” Bourne said. “We were given the No. 1 ranking in the country, [and] even though we believe that we deserve it, we all know that we have to prove that.”
For UCI, 2006 AVCA Coach of the Year John Speraw’s team comes into Friday’s match with the Trojans red-hot after losing opening night to No. 6 BYU. After their four-set loss to the Cougars, UCI closed the Elephant Bar Tournament with two convincing victories over No. 11 UCSD and No. 7 Long Beach State.
Leading the Irvine team in their quest to become the first repeat national champion in men’s volleyball since the 1996 UCLA Bruins achieved the feat are sophomore opposite Carson Clark — and senior outside hitter Cole Reinholm — who had a career-high 21 kills in the team’s win over UCSD earlier this month.
For the Trojans, this week has already created some early-season praise from around the conference, after the team Wednesday night dispatched crosstown rival UCLA in just four sets on the Bruins’ home floor (30-26, 29-31, 30-26, 30-28). Despite the big win over their main rivals, this year’s Trojans embrace the concept that in order to win a national championship, the team must not rest on its laurels at any point.
“Despite a big win against rival UCLA, we understand that we need to approach each game one at a time,” senior middle blocker Hunter Current said. “Every team, including UCI, wants to ruin our season and we’re looking to prove them wrong every time.”
While fourth-year coach Bill Ferguson feels confident about his team’s chances Friday night, he admits that in order to beat a team of UCI’s caliber, his team must improve from the service line.
“We haven’t been able to put teams under pressure with our service game,” Ferguson said. “It is something we need to continue to improve upon if we want any consistent success at a high level.”
So while notions of a statement game or a chance to seek revenge may initially surround tomorrow night’s huge 7 p.m. matchup, when the whistle blows, the Trojans will have only one thing in mind when they face the Anteaters: to win.
“This match is a good step for us,” Ferguson said. “Winning on the road in our league is very tough. Any time we can get a win, we will definitely cherish it.”