After last year’s hiatus, the men’s volleyball team clinched the No. 8 seed in this year’s MPSF Tournament. The Trojans, who lost seven out of nine matches to start the season, bounced back to not only double their 2016 total victories with a final 14-13 record, but to also finish tied for sixth in the MPSF.
“We’re as ready as we get,” head coach Jeff Nygaard said. “We’re ramping up. We just won eight of the last nine. We went to Cal Baptist, which is an adverse situation, and we came away with the ‘W’ that we were looking for.”
Despite their string of victories leading into the tournament, the Trojans will be facing the No. 1 seed Long Beach State, who went 24-3 this season, in the first round of the tournament. While a seemingly difficult task, USC served them one of their three losses at the beginning of the season. Senior outside hitter Lucas Yoder, who is currently leading the nation in kills, senior middle blocker Andy Benesh, who is fifth in hitting percentage, and junior setter Gert Lisha, who is second in assists, will be key in defeating Long Beach State again.
“We’ve got a lot of pieces right now playing at a high level,” Nygaard said. “We’ve got some guys playing some good volleyball. So now, it is a question of going in against the No. 1 team, which, philosophically speaking, is one of those things like, ‘Well, how do you think you’re going to do against them?’ Well, I think we have a better chance by playing them than we do sitting in the stands watching it.”
As it always is with the tournament, the Trojans now have two games versus Long Beach State to look back on and to use as preparation for this game. Since the first meeting, the team has progressed, yet was plagued with injury when the next meeting came around with Yoder not playing and sophomore outside hitter Gianluca Grasso just coming off an ankle sprain.
Nygaard believes that the first matchup was a showcase for his team when every player is healthy and contributing to the best of their abilities. The second game created difficulties for the team due to injuries, but he still saw potential in the way that his players battled against their opponents. This time, with all players healthy, Nygaard expects his players to be ready to bring the heat.
“You couple those together with the progression of where we are,” Nygaard said. “We have had a healthy starting lineup for at least the past three or four matches. I would look forward to competing at a high level.”
While making the tournament is always a goal, the team is also seeing it as proof of what the future holds for them. After a tough season last year, the Trojans have turned the program around in a short period of time, leaving their fans with hope for both this tournament and for the seasons to come.
Nygaard admitted that while the team isn’t the No. 1 seed, they are on the right path.
“The guys are starting to understand it,” Nygaard said. “They are embodying what we are trying to do. Are we done? By no stretch of the imagination because we are just above .500, so there is tons of room for growth. There is nothing but positive signs towards where we’re trying to get to.”