No one would blame the USC men’s volleyball team if, with the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season title wrapped up, it approached this upcoming road trip to Honolulu as a vacation.
But this team holds itself to a higher standard, as No. 1 USC (18-1, 17-1), is off to its best start since 1991.
“There’s no change in how we’re going to do this,” said USC coach Bill Ferguson. “We’re not emptying the bench or anything like that. We’re going to use this as an opportunity to get better because we’re still a little ways off from where we want to be.”
No. 8 Hawai’i (14-11, 12-8) has two indisputable star players in All-Americans Jonas Umlauft and Joshua Walker.
Umlauft has emerged as the frontrunner for the National Player of the Year award, improving his average kills per set to an NCAA leading 5.59 after a weekend in which he registered 49 kills in seven sets against Cal State Northridge.
Upon comparing that figure to celebrated senior opposite Murphy Troy’s 4.14 kills per set, it is clear why Umlauft will be the focus of the coaching staff’s attention during pre-match meetings.
Walker, for his part, has been a worthy sidekick, averaging 3.58 kills per set, along with a respectable .338 hitting percentage.
“They’re a unique combination,” Ferguson said. “They’re both very different. Umlauft [6-foot-9] is much taller than Walker [6-foot-2]. Both of those guys can hit Hawai’i out of almost any situation. They’re used to hitting against two- and three-person blocks all the time.”
To limit these two stars, the Trojans will look to their two stalwart middle blockers: senior Austin Zahn and junior Steven Shandrick. If USC’s middle defense can remain disciplined and make the appropriate reads, Hawai’i will be hard-pressed to score consistently.
“The middles really have to be patient and technically sound,” Ferguson said. “We’re not going to be able to cheat or to hedge against one side of the court or another. They’re going to have to set the tone for us. If our middles take their middles out, we can be in for a good night.”
USC plays a weekend set against the Warriors Friday and Saturday.
Both matches begin at 7 p.m.