USC’s men’s volleyball team, which claimed the eighth and final seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament, will return to the postseason this weekend after missing the playoffs last season.
The challenge for the Trojans (16-10, 14-10) will be to upset BYU, the top-seeded team in the tournament to keep their hopes for a national championship alive.
After concluding their regular season with a loss at Pepperdine on April 5, the Trojans missed a chance to clinch a spot in the MPSF tournament. The Trojans fell by a score of 25-18, 21-25, 25-19, 14-25, 15-11 to the Waves (18-6). As a result, the Trojans had to wait for the rest of the MPSF season to play out over the next week to see if they would make the playoffs.
USC had won both matches against Hawai’i this season, so the Trojans had the advantage over the Rainbow Warriors, another potential No. 8 seed, if a tie in the standings necessitated a tiebreaker. But with one less loss than the Trojans and two games remaining going into the last week of the regular season, Hawai’i could have claimed the last spot with a sweep of Pepperdine during a double-header last weekend. Though Pepperdine prevented the Trojans from celebrating a playoff-clinching victory a week earlier, the Waves ensured the Trojans would make the MPSF tournament by beating Hawai’i (15-12, 13-11) in both matches.
As one of the eight teams from the 13-team MPSF to qualify for the MPSF tournament, USC still has a chance of making the NCAA tournament. Six teams across the country will be invited to compete for the national championship and USC head coach Bill Ferguson assumes that three of those teams will come from the MPSF.
With three conferences in NCAA Division I men’s volleyball, each conference gets one automatic qualifier for the national championship tournament, and the other two spots will be at-large bids. According to the most recent American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, all but one of the top 10 teams in the country are from the MPSF. Ferguson says the two at-large bids will most likely go to MPSF teams.
If the Trojans win the MPSF tournament, USC would claim the automatic qualifier spot for the NCAA tournament.
The Trojans will travel to Provo, Utah and play the Cougars tomorrow night in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Ferguson said the team is particularly excited about the travelling to BYU, where the Cougars are undefeated this year.
“The place will be packed and they have great fans so the environment will be phenomenal,” he said. “I think our guys thrive in that environment.”
USC lost both matches to BYU (18-8, 18-6) this year, taking the Cougars to five sets at home on Feb. 1. The Trojans lost that matchup by a score of 16-25, 25-22, 15-25, 25-20, 15-10, but fell in straight sets on Feb. 28 in the Smith Fieldhouse by a score of 25-22, 25-16, 25-21. Ferguson said that the three-set result from the last trip to BYU is somewhat misleading, given that the Trojans have made huge strides since then.
“Sets one and three, we were actually pretty competitive into the early 20s,” Ferguson said of the last meeting. “At that time we weren’t serving well and we were passing okay but nowhere near the level we’re at now. We’re in a different league from where we were.”
BYU is ranked No. 4 in the AVCA poll, with USC coming in at No. 8. BYU finished the season on a four-match losing streak, dropping both matches of the double-header against No. 10 Hawai’i on April 4 and 5, then falling to No. 5 UC Santa Barbara and No. 9 UCLA a week later.
A win Saturday would advance USC to the semifinals next Thursday, April 24, against the winner of the UCLA vs. UCSB match. The MPSF tournament championship will be held Saturday, April 26 and the NCAA tournament will begin Thursday, May 1. The location for the MPSF semifinal and final is to be determined.
No. 1 Loyola-Chicago (25-1) of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association will host the NCAA tournament. Loyola-Chicago’s only blemish on an otherwise undefeated season came on Jan. 4 when USC defeated the Ramblers in Chicago in four sets by a score of 25-27, 25-18, 20-25, 15-25.
Ferguson says that given the Trojans’ low seed, they are unlikely to get an at-large bid if they do anything short of winning the conference tournament. But he said the team isn’t worrying about the rest of the tournament and is just focusing on BYU.
“We’re thinking about going 1-0 this weekend,” Ferguson said.
Saturday’s match is set to start at 6 p.m.