The USC men’s volleyball team pulled off a stunning upset over No. 5 Pepperdine in Malibu Saturday night in its Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal playoff game.
Coming into the game, No. 6 seeded USC had dropped two straight games against Concordia and Grand Canyon University, while No. 3 seeded Pepperdine had won five of their last six, including wins over Concordia and GCU.
With a 15-8 overall record (8-4 conference) compared to the Trojan’s 8-19 (3-7 conference), Pepperdine was a heavy favorite, and for good reason. Pepperdine proved its ability to consistently defeat top-ranked teams with a balance of smart coaching, strong attacking and fundamental defense throughout the year, leading to their top-five national ranking by the season’s end.
Conversely, USC’s inexperienced yet talented roster had many ups and downs throughout the year, often hanging tight with top schools before narrowly falling by a few points each set.
“They’ve got some guys that absolutely bomb,” head coach Jeff Nygaard said before the Pepperdine matchup. “They’re in their gym so it’s a little bit of a home court advantage. When it gets to this level, I don’t ever anticipate that we’re going to stop people or shut people down, but our job is to mitigate them, to the level to where it gives us opportunities to win by one or two points.”
USC knew it had the ability to beat any team in the country, after their huge upset over No. 2 ranked UCLA on Senior Night.
“Going to the playoffs, there’s all this other energy that’s out there, there’s all these other expectations,” said Nygaard. “When you saw what we did during UCLA, it was all of a sudden like, that was what the team should be playing to, so that’s what we’re trying to reproduce on a daily basis. That type of poise, composure, yet execution and high level of commitment to doing everything.”
Pepperdine came out sluggish, perhaps underestimating their opponent, and USC capitalized by taking the first set 25-22. Pepperdine appeared to turn the tide in the second set with a strong 25-19 win, yet USC regrouped and pulled out the crucial third set, 26-24. With all the momentum on their side, the Trojans finished the match off convincingly with a 25-18 victory.
Junior outside hitter Jack Wyett led USC with 20 kills, one ace and two blocks. His fellow junior outside hitter Gianluca Grasso was right behind with 19 kills, two aces and three blocks. Freshman middle blocker Sam Lewis showed great poise in his first playoff match, finishing with six kills and seven blocks, while junior outside hitter Ryan Moss contributed with nine kills and 10 digs.
Most impressively, USC outhit Pepperdine .387 to .267, had 50 digs to 35 from Pepperdine and had eight blocks compared to the Waves’ six.
USC now prepares to take on No. 4 BYU, the top overall seed in the playoffs. With the team seemingly peaking at the right time, it will be fun to see if the Trojans can continue their Cinderella run come April 19.