Finally, the No. 2 USC men’s volleyball team is back.
After playing three straight five-set matches on the road and going 1-2 in those contests, the Trojans (7-3, 5-2) open up a season-long seven-game homestand Friday night against No. 7 Pepperdine.
“I almost forgot what it feels like. It’s definitely going to be nice to be at Galen again,” junior middle blocker Austin Zahn said. “That was the longest road trip in front of packed houses everywhere we went. It’s gonna be nice to be able to control our momentum that comes from being at home.”
The Waves (4-4, 4-3) beat the Trojans two weeks ago in Malibu, Calif. in a five-set match in which USC held a 2-1 lead, handing the Trojans their first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation loss of the season. Back then, Pepperdine was 1-4. Now, the Waves have reeled off three straight wins, including victories over two different No. 1 teams — USC and Cal State Northridge.
“We got to go into it with the mental edge that we’re going to stick it to these guys this time,” Zahn said. “It’s one of those things that you try to prepare yourself as best you can, but, when you’re in the game, you hope it doesn’t come down to stupid mental errors.”
Those mental errors are what troubled USC two weeks ago. The Trojans had a a chance to close the Waves late in the fourth set but failed to do so. The same thing happened at CSUN the following week in the game’s first set.
Knowing this, the Trojans have been working on their mentality all week.
“A lot of times it’s lapses in focus. We build a lead, relax and the other team comes back and scores three or four points in a row,” junior opposite hitter Murphy Troy said.
This also brings up the fact that the Trojans haven’t been able to put away break point chances — something that cost them during their two-match losing streak.
USC is second in the conference in digs (10.80 per game) and third in the league in opponent hitting percentage (.254) but 11th in kills (14.80 per game). The Trojans are getting the deflections and slowing teams down, but they just haven’t been able to put the point away with the kill.
“We’re getting those opportunities to hit the swing, but we just aren’t converting them,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “We had four opportunities versus Pepperdine in that fourth set to get a break point, but our transition game just needs to get better.”
One thing Ferguson is trying to do to help the transition game is getting freshman Clay Knapp more playing time in the libero position. Knapp started last game against UC Santa Barbara, recording nine digs and playing all five sets.
He will start his second game in a row over sophomore Andrew Pizula, who has been getting the majority of the playing time this year.
“There really isn’t any statistical difference between Clay and Andrew, but we feel there’s just a better flow when Clay is on the court,” Ferguson said. “He came on in the third, fourth and fifth sets against Northridge and then played against Santa Barbara and played really well. When he’s been in, there’s been positive flow, and we are just going to ride it.”
If the Trojans do ride that positive flow to a three-set victory Friday, there will be a reward that most players on the team long for. Like the New York Yankees, the team has a no-beard policy.
“If we get the three-set win, the guys don’t have to shave for a week,” Ferguson said.