It’s not time to panic, yet.
When the final kill hit the hardwood on USC’s side of the net, the Trojans stood as still as Michelangelo’s David, frozen in a state of disbelief before finally, mechanically, shaking hands with the opponent.
The No. 2 USC men’s volleyball team couldn’t believe they had just been swept by No. 7 Pepperdine at home Friday night (30-28, 30-28, 30-26) for their third loss in four games. Two of those losses have come at the hands of the Waves (5-4, 5-3), who dethroned the former No. 1 Trojans (7-4, 5-3) in a five-set thriller two weeks ago in Malibu, Calif.
This time, the Waves only needed three sets to put a dent at the start of the Trojans’ seven-game homestand and plant a seed of doubt in the back of the team’s mind.
“I think coach said it well that it’s not panic time, but it’s concerned time,” said Tony Ciarelli, sophomore outside hitter. “We should all be a little concerned right now. We should be playing better than this.”
USC had a chance to close out the third set and extend the match, but, much like the previous two sets, the Trojans got stuck in a rotation and it hurt them. With USC up 20-18, Pepperdine called a timeout, then proceeded to go on a deadly 10-2 run to put the match away.
The same thing happened in the second set. The Trojans took a 12-11 lead, only to watch as the Waves went on a 6-0 run. Once the Trojans were able to get out of their rotation, they clawed their way back to tie the game at 28. But they couldn’t put it away.
“It wasn’t like throughout the game we were playing terrible,” Ciarelli said. “We weren’t playing bad for 90 percent of the game but that 10 percent just took out that other 90. It was that one rotation that was killing us.”
Other than getting stuck in one rotation, USC had trouble passing and building onto a lead. USC’s biggest lead was four points — 16-12 in the first set — and every time the Trojans looked like they were ready to pull away they made a mistake and the Waves reeled them back in.
USC was never able to pull away because of the predictability of passes. Opposite hitter Murphy Troy and Ciarelli had 71 combined attempts — more than double the rest of the team. They put away only 29 of those attempts while middle blockers Austin Zahn and Hunter Current killed 19 balls on 31 attempts. If the Trojans could’ve gotten Zahn and Current the ball more, the match might have turned out differently.
“We’re not passing the ball as well as we can so we’re not getting opportunities to set them,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “The passing was huge and did us in tonight and made our offense two-dimensional instead of three.”
Despite this, Ferguson said panic time hasn’t arrived yet. He points to the late start in the fall — Troy, Ciarelli and outside hitter Tri Bourne played on the USA Junior National team at the world championships in August and Current was injured. As well as, the weekly Wednesday/Friday matches they had earlier this season, giving USC only one real day of practice.
So, it’s back to the gym for the Trojans, where all they can do is continue to work to end their midseason funk.
“We go back to the practice gym and video room and keep getting better,” Ferguson said. “This is only the second week we’ve had to train since late December, so we are finally able to get back to the drawing board, and anytime we get to train right now is going to be huge for us.”