No. 1 USC is primed to take on No. 2 UC Irvine in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinal match at 7:30 at the Galen Center Thursday.
The Trojans (23-4, 18-4) have won 18 straight matches. Coming off a sweep over No. 11 Cal State Northridge, after playing the Matadors late in the regular season only a week earlier, the Trojans are peaking at the right time.
“We were able to adjust on troubles we had the week previous,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “We were far more efficient. With that short prep time, it’s really a question about who is going to improve more during the time in between matches.”
Despite the winning streak and the many years of close-but-not-quite-there, the Trojans are not succumbing to the pressure of years past.
“There’s no need to jump and yell,” Ferguson said. “They just get it. Nothing we have to hammer home — they just understand what it takes to win.”
The Anteaters (22-5, 17-5) are tied for the second spot in the conference along with Stanford and BYU. The Trojans beat the Anteaters during the first week of the month in four sets.
In that match, the Trojans disarmed the characteristically strong UC Irvine serving attack with a strong outside hitting attack as an adjustment to ball control issues. The Trojans also held the Anteaters to .206 hitting.
The Trojan defense has been a juggernaut this year, holding opponents to a conference-best .179 hitting percentage. Though the Trojans are not the offensive juggernaut of years past with a modest .300 percentage (fifth in the conference) their ability to shut down opposing offenses has made them competitive.
“The trio of Micah [Christenson], Maddison [McKibbin] and Tanner [Jansen] can be absolutely shut-down blockers,” Ferguson said. “With 60 percent of the action in volleyball going right at them, that means a lot of points.”
The Trojans have come from being a young team maligned with injury to a healthy force to be reckoned with. Featuring MPSF Player of the Year senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, second-teamer senior middle blocker Steven Shandrick and honorable mention team members sophomore libero Henry Cassiday, freshman middle blocker Robert Feathers and sophomore opposite Tanner Jansen, the Trojan lineup is deep and effective.
Ciarelli is the second Trojan in a row to win MPSF Player of the Year, following Murphy Troy in 2011.
“It’s an honor, but it doesn’t really change anything,” Ciarelli said. “People get these awards because they work hard in practice. This award won’t change my approach or how hard I play.”
Ferguson credits strength and conditioning coach Brent Metz, who he touts as “the best in the sport” for the team’s physical health after a long and grueling season. The program’s approach toward in-season improvement, rather than maintenance or injury prevention, has the team’s aggregate vertical jump seeing increases rather than typical decreases because of wear and tear.
“We keep getting better,” Ferguson said. “Our guys are focused and their heads are in the right place.”