With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the USC men’s volleyball team seems to have finally come into its own. After three big conference wins over spring break, the Trojans will head north this weekend to take on Stanford and Pacific for two more crucial Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matchups.
“It feels good,” said USC head coach Bill Ferguson. “We’re definitely playing our best volleyball right now, and you always want to be peaking at the end of the year, and we’re starting to do that.”
The Trojans (14-8, 13-8 MPSF) beat crosstown rival UCLA (14-8, 11-7) in four sets on March 15. The team went on to beat Cal State Northridge (7-14, 6-12) last Friday in straight sets, then pulled out a four-set victory over Long Beach State (15-6, 12-6) the next day.
USC beat the Bruins by a score of 25-20, 19-25, 25-17, 25-23 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Freshman outside hitter Lucas Yoder led the team with 20 kills, senior outside hitter Maddison McKibbin had 12 kills and senior opposite Tanner Jansen added 10 kills. The Trojans had previously fallen to UCLA in straight sets at home this year on Feb. 9, losing by a score of 25-20, 25-23, 25-19.
The Trojans avenged another sweep from earlier in the season against the Matadors. After losing at Cal State Northridge on Jan. 24 by a final score of 25-19, 25-21, 25-21, the Trojans earned a sweep of their own while hosting Cal State Northridge by a final score of 25-20, 25-20, 25-20. The trio of Jansen, Yoder and McKibbin led the team again in kills with 13, 11 and 8 respectively.
To complete the undefeated spring break campaign, the Trojans beat Long Beach State by a final score of 25-22, 21-25, 25-19, 27-25. Leading the team in kills again was Jansen with 26, followed by Yoder with 22 and McKibbin with 13. USC had beaten the 49ers in three sets by a score of 25-19, 25-22, 33-31 at Long Beach State on Jan. 22.
“We’re playing better every single game,” McKibbin said. “Our passing has gotten better, our hitting percentage is going up, we’re blocking a lot more balls, we’re getting a lot more aces. It feels like we’re steadily reaching our peak, which is what we planned to do.”
Both the Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State home games were played in the North Gym, rather than the usual Galen Center, as the Galen Center was booked that weekend for the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. The North Gym, located inside of the Physical Education Building in the heart of campus, was the team’s home court when the program first became a varsity sport in 1970 until 1988. The North Gym and the Lyon Center split time as the team’s home court between 1988 and 2006 before the Galen Center became the official home court of the team in 2007. The North Gym can only hold about 1,000 spectators, about a tenth of the capacity of the Galen Center, and was the home court for the team three of the four seasons USC has ever won a national championship.
“I love playing in North Gym,” said senior libero Henry Cassiday. “I don’t think I’ve ever lost here. It’s a gnarly home court advantage with the low ceiling, and we practiced with that a little before. We have our fans here and they’re really close, they’re right next to the action, so it’s really fun.”
The three-game winning streak featured the same starting lineup for the Trojans each match. Along with McKibbin and Yoder starting at the two outside hitter spots and with Jansen starting at opposite, the USC starting lineup has featured freshman Andy Benesh at the first middle blocker spot, junior Chris Lischke at the second middle blocker spot, Cassiday starting at libero and junior Micah Christenson as the starting setter. With relatively few exceptions, Cassiday, Christenson, Yoder and Benesh have started every game for the Trojans this year, though the team has used more of a committee for the second outside hitter spot, second middle blocker spot and the opposite. Cassiday, however, said that the group of seven starters from the last three games has developed a lot of chemistry together and look to be the starters for the rest of the season.
The Trojans take on Stanford (14-7, 11-7) today and will spend the night in northern California before taking on Pacific (2-19, 1-15) Friday. The Trojans fell to Stanford at home on March 9 in straight sets by a score of 25-15, 25-14, 25-22 but swept Pacific by a score of 25-20, 25-22, 25-15 at home on March 7.
The Trojans are ranked as the No. 7 team in the country, according to the most recent American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, with Stanford coming in at No. 6 and Pacific unranked. The Trojans are currently in fifth place out of 13 teams in the MPSF, 4.5 games behind BYU, who leads the conference at 16-2.
Both matches this week are set to start at 7 p.m. If USC can win both, the team will have won five straight matches for the first time this season.