The USC men’s volleyball team finally returned to the Galen Center Thursday night after a long and disappointing road trip. After dropping their last four games, the Trojans were eager to return home and play in front of a friendly crowd, and, while their opponents, the Cal Baptist Lancers, provided a tough challenge, USC ended its losing skid and improved to 3-5.
The No. 11 Lancers came into Thursday’s game boasting wins over a number of ranked teams, including UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge and UCLA, but the Trojans were more worried about their own performance than the strong start of their opponent. USC’s play from the service line in its most recent matches is much to blame for its lackluster record. However, that was not the case on Thursday.
Cal Baptist began the first set by grabbing an early lead, taking advantage of the Trojans sluggish start. The Lancers had a 9-8 lead when the Trojans sided out, giving the ball to sophomore setter and co-captain Micah Christenson. From there, it was all USC. Christenson notched four aces en route to an 8-0 run for the Trojans. With a commanding 16-9 advantage, the Trojans cruised to an early first set victory, 25-21.
USC rode the momentum of an impressive first set to an early lead, aided by two more aces from Christenson. But while the Trojans continued to play well from the service line, the Lancers were able to keep pace. The score stayed close for most of the set until a pair of crucial kills from freshman outside hitter Austin Rysyk gave USC the set and a 2-0 advantage.
“We really came out and served the daylights out of the ball,” USC head coach Bill Ferguson said. ”I think everybody, Micah especially, came ready to go. It’s the best he’s felt in a long time and you could see it.”
The Trojans appeared to regress to their older form in the third set, however, with seven service errors leading the way to a Cal Baptist comeback. The Lancers took advantage of USC’s errors as well as some clutch play from outside hitter Guilherme Koepp, who notched 14 kills on the night. With that, the Lancers took the third set 25-18, but the Trojans were not going to let this match get away from them.
Early in the fourth set, USC battled back to erase a deficit. It was at that point that the energy of the Trojan bench played a crucial role.
“We recruit character and these guys have a ton of it,” Ferguson said. “They’ve maintained their level of enthusiasm. We’ve been telling them we trust them and we believe in them.”
With the score tied even at 23 apiece, the Trojans surged ahead thanks to a couple of big plays from sophomore outside hitter Cristian Rivera. That set the stage for freshman middle blocker Josh Kirchner to finish off the Lancers with a decisive ace. USC took the set, 26-24, and their first victory in nearly a month.
“We’ve been so close all year and have had short bursts of great but needing one long burst of good to turn the tide,” Ferguson said. “Maybe that ace at the end was part of it,“
The Trojans will face top-ranked BYU at the Galen Center on Saturday at 7 p.m. before taking on the UCLA Bruins next Monday at 8 p.m.