Trojans stumble in NCAA championship game against UC Irvine
No. 1 UC Irvine upended the No. 2 USC men’s volleyball team inÂ straight sets to win the NCAA championship Saturday with scores of 25-22, 34-32 and 26-24, marking the second national title in four years for the Anteaters. An announced crowd of 9,162 made its way to the Galen Center â the third-highest in NCAA championship match history.
Saturdayâs match was a rematch of the five-set loss to the Anteaters in theÂ Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals little more than a week ago and of the 2009 national championship match. The Anteaters were the preseason favorites to win the title, and the Trojans were picked to finish fifth in the conference in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
âPeople can see a three-game sweep as a blowout, but two deuce sets say otherwise,â USC senior outside hitter and co-captain Tony Ciarelli said. âWe played them great. On paper we donât match up with them â theyâre the deepest team in the country and have several guys on the bench who could be âthe guyâ anywhere else.â
The match, which was decided by a combined seven points, was a fierce back-and-forth battle from start to finish, including a 34-32 second set where USC started ahead 14-7. But a 12-4 run by UC Irvine gave the Anteaters the lead for the first time in the set at 19-18. With a series of scramble plays â including a behind-the-head shot from Ciarelli and a huge kill off of a scramble play from redshirt sophomore opposite Tanner Jansen â the emotional roller coaster of dropping a seven-point lead and losing the set after an epic finish took the wind out of the Trojansâ sails.
UC Irvine opposite and NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player Carson Clark led all players with 22 kills earned at a phenomenal .465 hitting percentage. His strength at the service line kept the Trojan offense out of sync for most of the night, and his ability to score efficiently from all over the court proved to be too much for the Trojans.
The Anteaters are known throughout college volleyball as relentless attackers of the middle of the court through the âbicâ set, a quick tempo set designed to keep opposing middle blockers at bay while deciding whether to jump with the first middle attacker, the âbicâ hitter or closing to either outside spot.
âWe attacked Penn State in the middle of the court relentlessly in the semifinals, and we figured USC wouldnât let us do that tonight,â said UC Irvine coach John Speraw. âTonight we had to be better at the pins with Clark, [Connor] Hughes and [Kevin] Tillie.â
The Trojans quelled the charge from Tillie and the âbicâ as well as the middle attack, but the Anteatersâ depth proved to be too much to handle. Hughes poured in 13 kills from the outside hitter spot along with Clarkâs monster day to give the Anteaters the boost they needed.
âOur goal was to stop [UC Irvine outside hitter Kevin] Tillie and we absolutely did,â Ciarelli said. âBut Clark picked up his game â this was the first time he hit over .250 in probably my four years here because weâve tried so hard to stop him in the past.â
The Trojans were not able to control the Anteatersâ serving attack, finishing with an uncharacteristic six receiving errors. As a result, the Trojans could not keep the Anteater defense honest with the quick middle attack that was so efficient for them in the past. High sets to the outside hitters became the only option on many occasions, leaving the Trojan hitters with a fully set defense to beat on many occasions.
Despite hitting into the full force of the UC Irvine defense all night long, Ciarelli, anÂ NCAA All-Tournament selection,Â finished with a team-high 18 kills in a gutsy effort.
âOn a broader scale, the level of play and fan support were unbelievable,â USC coach Bill Ferguson said. âI hope everyone involved understands what this does for the sport of volleyball â there has never been an atmosphere like this at a national championship game before and took college volleyball to a new level.â