If you were to tell the No. 1 USC men’s volleyball team (5-1, 2-0), before their Friday night match at the Bren Center, that they would trail UCI (4-2, 1-1), the defending national champions, by two sets on the last night of a grueling two-week road trip, only to come back and snatch the victory in thrilling fashion over the Anteaters, even the most confident of Trojan players would likely have chuckled at the idea.
Yet the Trojans stood in front of 2,648 fans at the end of their five-set victory, survivors in a match that had an atmosphere more fitting for an NCAA final than an early-season tussle in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference.
A glance at the final score (19-30, 21-30, 30-17, 30-28, 15-12) would not fully explain how impressive the Trojans’ comeback was.
In a week that saw the team fly home on a tedious flight from Honolulu Sunday night, only to rebound on short rest three nights later with a triumphant victory over their crosstown rival, it appeared the No. 1 team in the country saved their best, or at least most riveting, performance for the finale.
It would not be an understatement to characterize USC’s first two sets Friday night as embarrassing, flat and completely unbefitting of a team that has been crowned as one of the elites across the country.
As UCI’s Jordan DuFault put the first set out of reach with seven straight points from the service line (19-30) however, it became apparent to all in attendance that only one team had initially shown up in a rematch of last year’s national championship.
“I don’t think we were ready to play right off the bat,” said sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli.
While the Trojans and Anteaters jostled for position in the second set, it was Carson Clark, a familiar foe who helped secure UCI’s victory in the fifth set of last year’s final, who gave the defending champs some much-needed breathing room. Clark, who had 22 kills, recorded seven straight points from the service line with the score knotted at 20. The Anteaters would score 10 of the set’s final 11 points en route to an easy 2-0 lead over USC.
Down 2-0 in enemy territory was not the situation coach Bill Ferguson believed his team would find themselves in, yet, as the team headed into the third set ,the Trojans’ play caller realized his team still had a chance.
Rather than shout or point blame at his players, Ferguson implored his team to improve their passing game and to execute when opportunities arose. While his speech between sets likely won’t make its way to Hollywood, his words allowed his players to relax and believe they still had a shot at a remarkable comeback.
Led by captain Murphy Troy’s eight service points, the Trojans climbed back into the match with an emphatic victory in the third set (30-17). In the set, USC not only relied on their floor general in Troy but came together as a unit, firing four aces and a hitting percentage of .455.
While USC gained momentum heading into the fourth set, the Anteaters rallied back behind a tournament-like enthusiasm from their crowd and stellar play from setter Jeff Schmitz and DuFault and found themselves just four points from an early-season statement win. But the Trojans, in a match that according to their coach illustrated the team’s “resolve,” relied on back-to-back kills from Austin Zahn and Ciarelli, followed by a set point from Ciarelli, to tie the match in stunning fashion (30-28).
In the fifth set, it was the unsung contribution of junior setter Riley McKibben that put the finishing touches on the team’s turnaround. McKibben, who finished the night with 57 assists and a key kill down the stretch, kept the Anteaters guessing throughout the Trojans’ unlikely charge back from the embarrassment of their first two sets.
“I am absolutely stoked on our win for a variety of reasons,” McKibben said. “We exacted some revenge on our loss to them last year in the finals. And we showed that we could come back from a two-set deficit.”
As Austin Zahn capped the match with his final kill of the night (15-12), it became evident that this match was more than a comeback for the ages, a slaying of the former champion, or an opportunity to exact revenge on a bitter foe. It was a match that showed the will and fortitude of this year’s team, a match that truly was a testament to how special this group of players has become.
“The biggest thing we took away from this match was that we showed that our team has heart,” McKibben said. “As close as we were to defeat, we fought back and came up with a win.”