Trojans get a chance to turn season around
This time of year it is not uncommon to hear the phrase âAbsence makes the heart grow fonder.â
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell that to the No. 3 USC menâs volleyball team (7-4, 5-3) as it returned to the friendly confines of the Galen Center last Friday with a clunk.
One would assume the team would be happy to return home, after spending the entire month of February on the road. However, the Trojans were routed by the No. 7 Pepperdine Waves in three unimpressive sets (30-28, 30-28, and 30-26), leaving the one-time No. 1 team searching for answers to their newfound woes.
âThe team has been able to battle through some tough challenges over the last week,â senior middle blocker Hunter Current said. âWith that, there is a renewed energy and confidence that we are ready to compete again.â
Thanks to quirky schedule makers, who in a few short months have made the Trojans the road warriors of collegiate sports, the team will have a chance to mend its bruised heart with back-to-back home games this weekend against two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference foes: Pacific (6-10, 0-10) and No. 2 Stanford (7-3, 6-3).
Friday nightâs 7 p.m. tilt against the Tigers of Pacific University is subtly one of the most important matches USC will face all season. The Tigers are at the bottom of the MPSF, have yet to win a conference game and are fragile to say the least, and the Trojans are in desperate need of a morale boost after dropping three of their past four matches.
This season, Pacific is led by Serbian sensation and freshman middle blocker Nikola Vukicevic, not to be confused with USC menâs basketball big man, Nikola Vucevic. The freshman star from Belgrade is second on the team in kills per set (2.33) while also hitting at an efficient rate of .426.
Although the Tigers lack the fire power compared to other teams USC has faced, like Pepperdine, Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine, the Tigers started the season 4-0 en route to a top-10 standing throughout the first month of competition. Since its hot start however, the team has fallen on hard times, losing 10 of their previous 12 matches, with seven of the losses coming by way of a three-set sweep.
If Friday nightâs match is the tune-up game of the weekend for USC, Saturday afternoonâs clash with the No. 2 Cardinal is far and away the premiere showcase. While USC is limping into this weekend, searching for answers after the recent slump, the Cardinal are in the midst of a season-best four-match winning streak.
Led by reigning National Player of the Week sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson, Stanford heads into Saturdayâs match looking like the team more apt to make a run at an NCAA title. Lawson, who leads the team in kills per set (4.91) and service aces (16), is joined by senior leader and fellow opposite hitter, Evan Romero, who last year set the school record for most kills in a season.
After wins against perennial powerhouses UCLA and UC Irvine last weekend, a 4 p.m. showdown at the Galen Center with the Trojans is well worth the price of admission â which for students is free with a school I.D.
For Bill Ferguson and the Trojans, the key to repairing the damage of last weekâs embarrassing loss to Pepperdine is playing with the same heart and passion the team displayed so effortlessly while atop the nationâs standings just weeks earlier. While the team has found success this season as a unit, in order to regain the stride and swagger necessary to get back to the NCAA Final, junior team leaders opposite hitter Murphy Troy (4.05 kills per game), setter Riley McKibbin (552 assists this season) and middle blocker Austin Zahn (.460 hitting percentage this season) will need to do just that during this weekendâs home stand: lead.
If the Trojans fail to regain that sense of leadership, rĂ©sumĂ©-boosting matches like the ones they will face this weekend will go in a bad direction and a once-promising season has the potential to follow suit.
âAs a senior, I would say this team has experienced worse problems than losing three of past four games,â Current said. âWe are fortunate to experience some valuable âdownsâ this early in the season, ultimately helping us to peak at the right time.â