No Lexus Gauntlet, no problem in tonight’s early season match between two teams with no love lost between them. As the No. 1 USC men’s volleyball team (2-1) travels across town to legendary Pauley Pavilion to begin Mountain Sports Pacific Federation conference play against their heated rivals the UCLA Bruins (1-2) at 7 p.m.
UCLA, arguably the most successful program in the history of the sport with 19 NCAA Championships, has fallen on hard times since claiming the title back in 2006. Last year, despite a below .500 record (14-16), the Bruins managed to claw their way to the first round of the NCAA Championships. However, UCLA head coach and AVCA Hall of Famer Al Scates was defeated by his former player John Speraw and the eventual champion UC Irvine Anteaters.
This year the team finds themselves in a rare position in the MSPF. While USC received a preseason ranking of No. 1, UCLA will start their 2009-2010 campaign in unfamiliar territory: No. 8 in a conference of 15 teams. Led by senior outside hitter Garrett Muagututia — who led the team in assists per sets in 2009 — and redshirt sophomore opposite Jack Polales — who led the team in kills as a redshirt freshman in 2009 — the Bruins will look to bring back a 20th title to Westwood this season despite a lack of high expectations from outside the university.
In early season play, UCLA finished fourth in last week’s 46th annual Santa Barbara Invitational, despite losing two of their three matches. Although USC players recognize a shift in the balance of power occurring between the two teams in recent years, team members said they understand how meaningful a win at Pauley Pavilion would be so early in the season.
“Of course there is a huge rivalry, they have always been the big dogs in the MSPF,” said sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli. “We want and need the game really bad.”
The match will mark the fourth straight game the road-weary Trojans will be playing away from the Galen Center. The team feels, however, in order to adequately prepare for the level of competition they will likely face during the postseason, these road games are essential.
“Although it may not seem desirable to play tough matches away from home, I feel that our team confidently faces any high-caliber competition out of our comfort zone,” said senior middle blocker Hunter Current. “The lofty expectations on us improve our level of play and prepare the team for a national championship-type environment.”