The USC men’s volleyball squad began its postseason in dominant fashion Saturday, sweeping Cal State Northridge 25-13, 25-15, 25-18 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinals at the Galen Center. The victory sets up a battle between the first-seeded Trojans (23-4, 18-4) and No. 2 UC Irvine (22-5, 17-5), who advanced after eliminating UCLA in four sets Saturday.
As for the victory over the No. 11 Matadors (12-18, 7-14), the Trojans started the match with a blistering .556 hitting percentage in the first set. The Trojans hit an impressive .424 for the match while holding the Matadors to a .012 clip.
Senior co-captain, outside hitter and newly announced MPSF Player of the Year Tony Ciarelli played up to his honorable distinction with a match-leading six aces and 12 kills to go along with five blocks. Ciarelli also set the tone for the Trojans’ hot hitting with a .625 mark.
Freshman middle blocker Robert Feathers led all players with six blocks, redshirt junior outside hitter Steven Mochalski had nine kills, and MPSF Freshman of the Year and setter Micah Christenson had a .545 assist rate. Sophomore libero Henry Cassiday and junior opposite Maddison McKibbin led the Trojans with seven digs each.
Though the offense was firing on all cylinders, the vigilant Trojan defense was just as formidable. The Matadors committed 24 errors to the Trojans’ 10, while the Trojans held their top two hitters in Brandon Lebrock and Julius Hoefer to a combined .117 mark.
“We got in a little bit of a better rhythm and got a better feel for how to play them,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said.
This game was a rematch of the two squads’ final regular season match, where the Trojans won in straight sets at Northridge.
In the first set, the Matadors played the Trojans close to a score of 11-9 before two Ciarelli aces in a row sparked a 5-0 run after which the Trojans didn’t look back. Ciarelli hit four aces in the set, while poor passing by the Matadors led to easy kills for the Trojans.
The second set started out shaky for the Trojans, as the Matadors took a 7-4 lead. The opposing bench also took this lead as an opportunity to taunt Ciarelli about the Trojans’ loss in the Final Four last season. Bad idea. Ciarelli followed this with two consecutive kills followed by two consecutive blocks to put the Trojans back up.
The Trojans fell behind again 11-12 in the set, but had an 11-2 stretch to win the set.
“We didn’t push the panic button or burn a timeout or anything like that,” Ferguson said.
As for Ferguson’s take on one taunting Ciarelli: “Don’t poke the bear.”
In the third and deciding set, the Trojans’ precise hitting combined with poor returning by Cal State Northridge led to a 25-18 victory that was never really in doubt.
The only minor concern was that MPSF 2nd-teamer and senior co-captain and middle blocker Steven Shandrick sat out the final set after a possible injury in the second set.
“There’s nothing more than just being banged up,” Ferguson said. “It’s the end of the season. Stuff hurts.”