For a season that began with lofty goals and high expectations, Saturday night’s conclusion for the USC’s men’s volleyball team was far from the national title the team imagined.
Although the No. 6 Trojans (16-11) went into their MPSF tournament quarterfinal match with 16 straight losses to the No. 3 Cal State Northridge Matadors this time was supposed to be different. This time was supposed to be a mere stepping stone on a path paved toward a potential national championship run.
In sports, however, even the best-laid plans are often far from a guarantee — regardless of the time spent. And for a unit that had several key contributors from last season’s NCAA final team, this year ended in the blink of an eye (17-30, 33-31, 31-33 and 26-30).
If the opening set was any indication of how the night would go, it appeared the writing was on the wall early for the Trojans. Despite keeping it close against a dynamic Matador (22-8) team after falling behind 9-6, USC’s biggest adversary all year, hitting percentage — came out at the most inopportune of times. Aided by the Trojans’ negative hitting percentage (-.069) and a mere two blocks, CSUN coasted to an easy 30-17 set win.
But, if there had been something the Trojans have hung their hat on all year, it is their ability to claw their way back into matches.
In the second set, USC relied on five service aces from three different players (junior opposite hitter Murphy Troy, sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli and junior setter Riley McKibbin), yet still found themselves trailing 31-30 late in the set. After Troy tied it with an ace at 31, CSUN made one of its few errors all night to put USC up 33-31. And just as he has done time and time again in his career, Troy put away the match with a devastating kill (33-31).
The third set appeared to be the Ciarelli and Troy show early on, as the two dominated the initial minutes with multiple kills en route to an 11-4 lead. But a team doesn’t get to No. 3 in the country without great poise, and the Matadors proved they were more than worthy of their ranking. Paced by two separate four-point runs, CSUN and its middle blocker Jacek Ratajczak (19 kills, 9 blocks and .500 hitting percentage on the night) stormed back to take a 22-18 lead. USC would eventually tie it back up at 28 with a five-point stand of its own, but a Ratajczak kill coupled with an untimely error gave CSUN a 2-1 advantage in the match with a 33-31 victory.
The Trojans desperately tried to avoid the end of their season from coming. An early 7-4 lead would be for naught, as the Matadors put a stranglehold on the back-and-forth final set with timely attacks and polished defense. CSUN would take a commanding 22-18 lead, despite the early run USC mounted, and never looked back, as it finished off the Trojans 30-26.
For the Trojans, the night was summarized by their .112 hitting percentage, but they were led by two note-worthy performances from Troy (23 kills and 10 digs) and Ciarelli (14 kills), both of whom will be back next season to make another run at the NCAA tournament.
For CSUN, Ratajczak was not the only shining star for the semifinal-bound Matadors. Opposite hitter Theo Edwards chipped in with 11 kills, while outside hitter Mike Gaudino also had a huge contribution with 10 kills and 12 digs.
Although one player described the mood of the team after the season-ending loss as heated and charged up, others took time to reflect on the lessons learned from the season.
“We learned that [CSUN] is a team that cannot be underestimated,” said senior middle blocker Hunter Current. “They have good coaching and hustle-type players. It has been a challenging year and a learning experience for us all. The NCAA tourney just wasn’t in the cards.”