Trojans punch ticket to NCAA title game with four-set win
The USC menâs volleyball team earned a spot in the NCAA championship match against UC Irvine after beating Lewis University on Thursday at the Galen Center in four sets with scores of 25-18, 25-12, 18-25 and 27-25.
Senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, recently crowned AmericanÂ VolleyballÂ Coaches Association National Player of the Year,Â had a match-high 18 kills and 10 digs, and senior middle blocker Steven Shandrick finished with 15 kills earned at a .700 clip.
The upstart No. 7 Flyers beat defending national champion Ohio State for the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Associationâs automatic bid in the national semifinals. The school competes in Division II in all sports except for menâs volleyball and has undergone a full transformation after being hit with a bevy of sanctions that forced them to vacate their 2003 national championship.
âThey came back from the dead against Ohio State last week,â USC coach Bill Ferguson said. âThey were down 0-2 and came back to win.â
The No. 1 Trojans (24-5) looked unstoppable in the first two sets, hitting .462 compared to Lewisâ .120 and .125, respectively. Hitting aside, the Trojans kept the nearly full crowd on its feet with kills, blocks and scramble plays aplenty, including a kill by Ciarelli off an over-the-head bump set from the back boundary from freshman setter Micah Christensen. It appeared that the Flyers were outmatched and outmanned in every facet of the game.
âWe passed the ball great and [freshman setter Micah] Christensen ran the gameplan to perfection,â Ferguson said. âWe were basically doing whatever we wanted to do.â
The dominance, however, was short-lived. In sets three and four, the Trojans saw shades of last week’s loss in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals and Lewisâ upset over Ohio State in the MIVA tournament.
âThey got out to an early lead in the third set,â Shandrick said. âWe had more errors, didnât handle stuff as well out of system.â
In set three, the Flyers came alive. Lewis opposite Geoff Powell led a quick 10-5 run in set three and finished the set with seven kills. Momentum swung back to the Flyers, captured in the stat-line as eight errors â one less than the Trojans had in the other three sets combined â as well as a .129 hitting percentage.
âThe whole season, we have been very consistent with thinking about only the next play,â Ciarelli said. âWeâve gotten away from that for some reason and it showed in sets three and four when we got down.â
The difference in the match came from strategic maneuvers by Ferguson and his staff. With the teamâs energy running low, Ferguson substituted junior outside hitter/opposite Maddison McKibbin at both spots to light a spark.
âLewis started setting back to Powell, and McKibbin is one of our best blockers,â Ferguson said. âWe set him up on Powell, and he didnât get a lot of stuffs but forced him to change his hits and started to win the emotional battle as time went on.â
Lewis took an early lead in the fourth set. Down 19-20, Trojan senior utility player Jeff Carlson came in to serve, and Ciarelli tied the score at 20-20 with a monster kill that brought the Galen Center crowd to its feet.
At 22-23, Feathers ended a long rally with a stuff block of Powell. Ciarelli snuck a middle attack from the back row through three Lewis blockers to give the Trojans a 24-23 advantage. A Powell hitting error at 26-25 sealed the match for the Trojans.
âWeâre thrilled to get through that match with a victory,â Ferguson said. âThe crowd energized us at the end after we spent a lot of energy at the sprint in the beginning.â
The Trojans get a rematch with UC Irvine, whom they lost to in the MPSF semifinals last week.
âWe know each other pretty well because weâve played each other so much,â Ciarelli said. âWe know what the other team likes to do and we know how to beat each other.â
As for a preview on the teamâs outlook on the national championship match, Ciarelli reflected the season-defining team mindset when asked about his national player of the year honor.
âI appreciate it, but it hopefully doesnât feel as good as what I hope Iâll feel like on Saturday [after the championship match].â