Early season losing streak puzzles hungry Trojans

What a difference a week makes.

Last week at this time, the No. 2 USC men’s volleyball team was the top team on campus, in its conference and in the nation. But in the ebb-and-flow world of sports, the Trojans (6-3, 4-2) found out firsthand that championships aren’t won in April, they are earned through the grind of enduring tough February matches like the past few they’ve experienced.

Road weary · Junior middle blocker Austin Zahn and the Trojans have struggled on the road, but will not return home until next week. - Photo courtesy of USC Sports Information

For a month that is synonymous with love and kindness, February has dealt USC a cruel hand.

After blowing a late lead in Friday’s match over Pepperdine, in what would be the team’s last night atop the nation’s standings, it appeared the Trojans, like they have all year, would muster up enough grit to survive the hostile crowd they faced Wednesday night as they took on the No. 1 Cal State Northridge Matadors.

The Trojans came out flat in their first two sets against the Matadors, just as they had weeks earlier against UC Irvine. But unlike their emotional victory over the Anteaters, a comeback was not in the cards for USC. Despite crawling their way back into the match, with their most impressive set of the season (30-9), Cal State Northridge (9-1, 6-1) dominated the final set and cemented themselves as the No. 1 team in America (30-26, 30-28, 9-30, 26-30, 15-10).

As the Trojans enter tonight’s   7 p.m. match at the No. 9 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, the team is using its current two game slide as a wakeup call — a realization that championship caliber team success comes in large part from the lessons of past failures.

“Losing two straight has been extremely hard on the team, especially in the way we have lost, in five sets on the road in front of large hostile crowds,” junior middle blocker Austin Zahn said. “It is never one of those things you can prepare yourself for or see coming in advance, but it has made the whole team realize that we really have to take every game as serious as a national championship game.”

The team’s ascension back to the top will not come easy tonight against the Gauchos (4-6, 4-3). Like the Trojans, the Gauchos’ have had success primarily on the road. While the team’s overall record is not impressive or intimidating, USC knows it will face a talented foe in Santa Barbara. The Gauchos have beaten several top level teams this season including UC Irvine, Stanford and Pacific.

Leading UCSB is junior opposite hitter and reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation player of the week, Cullen Irons.

Irons, who is near the top of the conference in kills and points per game, will look to secure the Gauchos’ first home win in a month, against a team he has had a high level of success against in his career. Last year against USC, Irons put on a remarkable performance with a career high 32 kills in a five-set loss.

For the Trojans, the focus will not be Irons or his Gaucho teammates tonight, it will be on themselves. The team’s recent fall from the top is partly due to the level of competition it has faced lately, but ask any member of the team and he will tell his record is not indicative of how successful this group has the potential to become.

“Starting 4-2 rather than 6-1 is not how I pictured the season going, but, when you look at how the MPSF is going so far, there have been many ups and downs for every team,” Zahn said. “Now we need to just make sure we go out with the mindset that we are still competing to win the MPSF outright and make sure we manage our loss column as best we can and keep building up wins.