The No. 1 USC men’s volleyball team, despite its unceremonious first-round playoff exit last season, might have eradicated any doubts as to which team should headline the list of this year’s top national title contenders Thursday night.
The Trojans (7-1, 7-1) embraced the opportunity to announce their arrival as NCAA men’s volleyball’s dominant power, defeating last year’s reigning national champion and historic rival Stanford.
After suffering an unexpected loss to No. 11 Pepperdine in five sets last Friday on the road in Malibu, Calif., many, including the coaching staff, were curious to see how the Trojans would respond to their first dose of adversity this season.
Their emphatic response was a 25-15, 25-14, 25-21 victory against No. 5 Stanford (9-4, 6-4), in which the Cardinal often looked outclassed, especially in regard to net play.
“[The loss] is all we’ve been thinking about [since last Friday],” said freshman libero Henry Cassiday, who anchored the backcourt defense with 10 of the team’s 38 digs. “We wanted to come out with extra fire tonight and to bring a lot of energy to the court with us.”
In the first set, both teams exhibited some nervous energy, as both squads mishit — and even whiffed — on some routine kill opportunities, and committed a fair number of service errors.
Senior setter Riley McKibbin quickly reset the tone for the rest of the match with several inspired diving efforts to keep certain kills in play.
The second set followed a similar progression, with senior opposite hitter Tri Bourne and senior middle blocker Austin Zahn emerging to dominate the net.
Throughout the game, the Cardinal was helpless against the Trojans’ big men, only managing to register one block.
In addition to trampling the Cardinal in the blocking game eight and a half to one, USC also controlled the service game.
Through a quick three sets, the host Trojans hastily registered seven aces compared to zero for Stanford, while also committing four fewer service errors.
With a 17-14 lead in the third set, the Stanford players and bench, sunken throughout much of the match, began to awaken, sensing a shift in momentum.
The Trojans quickly quashed any Cardinal hopes on tightening the match, however, as they rattled off an 8-1 scoring streak on the strength of junior opposite hitter Tony Ciarelli’s masterful serving.
“Tony was phenomenal all night,” said USC coach Bill Ferguson. “After a sub-par game against Pepperdine, I knew he was going to come out tonight with greater focus.”
Also impressive was how the Trojans outwitted the Cardinal in many instances, whether they smartly chose placement over power when spiking the ball or made sound, split-second judgments as to which balls were heading in and out of bounds.
“They’re always a tough group of competitors,” Bourne said. “I grew up with them, and many of them are my good friends, which makes this win so much better.”
Following the game, Ferguson quickly dismissed any tactical discussion or mention of executing game plans.
Instead, he wished to simply commend his team for its resiliency and readiness to move past the obvious low point of the season thus far.