Rivalries and crosstown showdowns aside, Saturday’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation clash between USC and UCLA had the makings of a match with enormous late-season implications.
Only one problem: The Bruins must not have woken up from the team-wide nap taken during their short trip from Westwood to South Los Angeles.
On a night that began with much anticipation, the 90 minutes of action ended as more of a coronation for USC’s three seniors (middle blocker Hunter Current, opposite hitter Jon Hackett and outside hitters Tyler Stevens and Matt Knutson) than a battle between teams looking to send the entire league a message. The No. 6 Trojans (13-9, 10-8) dismantled No. 7 UCLA (14-11, 9-9) in three quick, painless sets (30-26, 30-21, 30-23).
Anyone within earshot of the Trojans’ bench could easily hear sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli emphasizing throughout the match to his teammates that the night was about “not only sending a message to UCLA, but to every team.” And while in the heat of the battle those words can often seem more trivial than inspirational, USC’s rout of the Bruins was undeniably the most impressive message the team has sent all year.
What made the match so applause-worthy was the way in which the Cardinal and Gold stomped on its opponent, rather than who the opponent was. To be frank, it didn’t matter who USC was playing, no team was going to match the Trojans’ levels of energy and intensity.
In the first set, USC controlled the tempo early, jumping out in front 6-1 to force an early timeout from the Bruins’ bench.
From there, it was the offensive one-two punch of Ciarelli and junior setter Riley McKibbin that sent the highly spirited Galen Center crowd to its feet after a 30-26 victory (a margin of difference that would have been even greater if not for USC’s three net infractions). Ciarelli’s strength and power were on full display as he contributed a set-high nine kills, while McKibbin, true to his form, pitched in with 15 assists.
If the first set exemplified the team’s offensive fortitude, the second set was all about USC’s ability to capitalize on mistakes.
After an early ace and two kills from junior opposite hitter Murphy Troy, the Bruins unraveled at the first sign of trouble. Four costly errors, including two from the service line, put UCLA in an insurmountable hole at 20-13, a lead the Trojan attack made sure to maintain. USC would go on to win the second frame, 30-21, hitting .464 for the match.
It would have been hard to blame the Trojans if they had come out flat in the third set, but on a night where anything that could go right did go right, Troy and company would not let up. Behind Troy’s eight kills in the set, USC would go on to cruise to a final frame score of 30-23 capped by an emphatic final kill from Current.
On the night, USC would hit a season high .423 hitting percentage, while sending its seniors out as the most successful Trojan volleyball players against UCLA in school history.
“The boys have been just doing a great job of coming together and playing as a unit,” said USC coach Bill Ferguson. “At this time of year, that is such a huge deal. Going forward, if we play as we did tonight, it is going to make it hard on any team we face in the future.”
While the Trojans concluded the home portion of their season schedule Saturday night, the team must not look into the future as it is set to face No. 1 Stanford and Pacific next Friday and Saturday.