In collegiate sports, it is rare to find a regular-season matchup showcasing the two top teams in the country. These types of marquee matches are normally saved for primetime television or late-round tournament games.
Though as the No. 2 USC men’s volleyball team (6-2, 4-1) travels tonight to the Metadome to face the newly-crowned No. 1 team in the land, the Cal State Northridge Matadors (8-1, 5-1), there will be no championships at stake, no ESPN camera crews and no late-night exposure. And while the final result may not leave the victor with a trophy or ticker-tape parade, no match this season has held as much importance as tonight’s showdown between these two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference foes.
The Trojans, who previously were ranked No. 1 in the country, enter tonight’s match in Stockton, Calif. in what simply can be described as unfamiliar territory. Last Friday, they led No. 11 Pepperdine 2-1, with an 18-14 lead in the fourth set, when the wheels on what looked to be an emphatic road win came off. The Waves rattled off a 12-6 run to win the set, and then carried that momentum in to the final set, en route to a 15-10 victory.
The match not only ended USC’s perfect conference record, but it stripped the team of its standing as the nation’s elite. While the team has had several statement victories over top teams including UC Irvine, Ohio State, UCLA and Long Beach State, all of their previous success means little without a victory over the Matadors — a team this group of players has had trouble with during their time at USC.
“Our team hates losing as much as we enjoy winning,” senior middle blocker Hunter Current said. “We have been able to overcome pressure situations in previous matches, so we are looking to prove the same against Northridge.”
While the Trojans were left searching for answers this past week, Northridge had arguably its best two performances of the season. The Matadors, behind senior leader opposite Theo Edwards and sophomore setter and assist leader Matt Stork, convincingly swept Pacific in three sets and upset previously second-ranked Stanford in a five-set stunner.
CSUN will enter tonight’s 7 p.m. tussle with the Trojans in a bit of unfamiliar territory as well. The team’s 8-1 record is the best in school history — a history that has featured only one appearance in the NCAA final, back in 1993.
Yet, while the chips may be stacked against the Trojans as they look to reclaim the top spot, many of the players are drawing on a motivational message they received from a guest speaker last season — former USC football head coach Pete Carroll.
“He told us when you are playing a top-ranked team, a lot of guys think they have to play at a higher level to win the game,” junior setter Riley McKibbin said. “That’s when players tend to make some unreal plays but, more often than not, make mistakes.”
McKibbin believes if the team can follow Carroll’s words and play consistent despite the level of competition they may be facing, the outcome will end favorably for the battle-tested Trojans.