USC hits the road to face UC Irvine, UC San Diego

After an up-and-down home stand in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play last week, the USC men’s volleyball team will get another big chance to assert itself in the MPSF on the road with a matchup at UC Irvine today. The Trojans (6-4, 5-4 MPSF) pulled off a dramatic comeback five-set win against UC Santa Barbara (6-3, 5-3) last Thursday before they were swept by UCLA (10-2, 7-1) on Sunday in three sets before today’s bout against the Anteaters.

You dig? · Senior libero Henry Cassiday tallied 15 digs — a team high — in last month’s narrow win over UC Irvine at the Galen Center. - Tucker McWhirter | Daily Trojan

You dig? · Senior libero Henry Cassiday tallied 15 digs — a team high — in last month’s narrow win over UC Irvine at the Galen Center. – Tucker McWhirter | Daily Trojan

Against UCSB, the Trojans came in as the home favorites as the fifth-ranked team in the nation, while the Gauchos were ranked eighth. USC lost the first set 25-20 and nearly lost the second set on several occasions before pulling out a nerve-racking 34-32 win.

The Trojans proceeded to lose the third set 25-23 and found themselves down 24-21 in the fourth set before storming back to win 27-25. They then clinched the decisive fifth set 15-9 to escape with a victory.

“This was huge,” USC head coach Bill Ferguson said after the match. “Not only in the standings, but it was huge for our team psyche to be able to battle back, get a couple breaks and take advantage of it. This one’s a really big match in the scope of things.”

Despite a packed crowd filling much of the Galen Center on Sunday and plenty of momentum from the game before, the Trojans were unable to keep their winning ways going against the No. 2 UCLA Bruins, then the top-ranked team in the country by the AVCA and the first overall team in MPSF standings.

USC senior libero Henry Cassiday noted after the game that the Trojans made far too many errors to compete against a very strong Bruin team, particularly in passing and serving. The Trojans had 12 serving errors in addition to seven receiving errors.

“The passing and serving game are the biggest things in volleyball,” Cassiday said.

In both games last week, senior opposite hitter Tanner Jansen and redshirt junior outside hitter Joey Booth were featured prominently in the rotation. Booth was out with an injury all season until the UCSB match, but may have earned a starting spot alongside freshman Lucas Yoder at the outside hitter spot, though sophomore Alex Slaught got the majority of the starts at the second outside spot while Booth was hurt.

Jansen has split playing time at opposite with junior Cristian Rivera and senior Maddison McKibbin for most of the year so far, but Jansen might start receiving noticeably more playing time at the position after his breakout performance in the game against UCSB.

UC Irvine (7-7, 4-6) comes into today’s matchup as both the No. 9-ranked team in the AVCA  and ninth in the MPSF standings, whereas the Trojans come into this week as the No. 5-ranked team in the country and seventh in the conference.

“They’re always good and well-coached,” Cassiday said of the Anteaters. “They’ll come out with strong pins, good servers and good passers, so we always have to be ready for that.”

UC Irvine is the two-time defending national champion in the sport, having beaten USC at the Galen Center in the national title game two years ago. The Trojans defeated UC Irvine earlier this year at the Galen Center on Jan. 14 in similar dramatic  fashion to their victory against the Gauchos, coming back from a 2-1 set deficit to win in five.

“Our two programs have been battling for years now, and it’s always a good night of volleyball when our two teams play,” Ferguson said after the victory.

In that match, USC’s dynamic pair of freshmen — Yoder and middle blocker Andy Benesh — combined for 36 kills to carry the Trojans. Benesh was especially crucial to the team’s effort, recording 15 kills on 19 attempts without any errors.

It might be harder this time around for USC to come away with a win since the match will take place on the Anteaters’ home court, but the Trojans appear ready to embrace the raucous road environment.

“We always have fun going down there and playing there,” Booth said. “It’s a good environment and we’re excited about it.”

After playing in Irvine tonight, the Trojans will continue on south to UC San Diego for a match against the winless Tritons (0-11, 0-10) on Friday night.

USC swept UC San Diego last month –— a common result for the hapless Tritons, who have claimed only three sets in 11 matches so far this season. This might be attributed to the fact that the squad has only had the advantage of hosting two matches at home, though.

Both of the Trojans’ matches will begin at 7 p.m.