With the final two home games of the year upon the USC men’s volleyball team this weekend, the Trojans find themselves in a spot that was unimaginable at the beginning of the season — seventh place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
“We definitely didn’t think we would be here,” said junior opposite hitter Murphy Troy. “But we still got a pretty good opportunity ahead of us with six games left.”
But the Trojans (11-9, 8-8) are still ranked sixth in the nation and will play two of those six games during their last homestand this weekend.
USC plays No. 11 UC Irvine (11-12, 6-10) in a rematch of the 2009 national championship game tonight and hosts No. 7 UCLA (14-9, 9-7) Saturday night in the home finale.
The Trojans defeated UC Irvine 3-2 in their last meeting in January, but both programs are not the championship squads they were in a year ago.
USC started the season 6-1 and No. 1 in the nation, but since then it has gone just 5-8 and slid down the national and conference rankings. Irvine also has been unable to put together a consistent run all year as well.
“We were both the belle of the ball last year, and now we’re in rental tuxes,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said jokingly.
Even though the Trojans made the 2009 championship match, they were in relatively the same position at this time last year. But the feeling around the team is a little different now.
“This time last year we sort of felt like we had nothing to lose. We had never been there before,” Troy said. “This year, we had higher expectations for ourselves, and we’re not fulfilling them.”
It’s been an up and down year for USC, with a lot more down than up recently. While the Trojans did defeat D-II Grand Canyon State last week, they are 1-3 in their last four games.
Ferguson has pointed to a shortened fall practice schedule because of injuries and national team commitments that hurt the team, but with the playoffs three weeks away, he has used the last two weeks of nearly uninterrupted practice to get his team to a new height.
“We’re at a whole different level than where we were three weeks ago,” Ferguson said. “Offensively, I think you’re going to see a whole different deal tomorrow night. We’ve been working on it big time, and these guys have improved a ton. I think it’ll be a little bit more exciting to watch us play volleyball.”
USC has tried to fix the problem by shuffling players around in the hope that one lineup will click. Last year, USC used just six different starting lineups, and five starters from the opening match of the season started the NCAA championship game.
This year, USC has already used seven different starting lineups, and four Trojans started in different positions for its match two games ago against BYU — than for its season opening match.
“As a coach, you walk the fine line of sticking with something and having continuity versus if something is not working and you need to make a change,” Ferguson said. “You never want to make a change for the sake of making a change, but you always want to better your situation. We feel like we’re getting close to where we want to be, and we’ll keep trying whatever we need to until we get something that works.”