Trojans deal with tough two-match weekend

For a weekend that held so much promise for No. 3 USC men’s volleyball team (8-5, 6-4), the final results left the Trojans exiting the gates of the Galen Center Saturday night with mixed emotions.

In a stretch of the season that was paved with confidence-building opportunities, the typically energetic group has looked like a shell of the team they had displayed throughout the first month of the campaign — most notably in their three-set loss to the Pepperdine Waves Friday at the Galen Center.

But while the Trojans’ home appearances have been few and far between this season, playing back-to-back nights at the Galen Center this weekend seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back on course.

The Trojans’ first opponent was one that has also faced difficulties. The Pacific Tigers (6-11, 0-11) came into Friday’s match having lost seven of their past 10 games. But in a conference as tough as the MPSF, the Trojans learned firsthand that a much-needed boost to their morale would not come easy.

Despite the addition of freshman outside hitter Maddison McKibbin to the starting lineup, the Trojans fell to the same bad habits that had plagued them during their recent skid. The Tigers — behind freshman outside hitter Taylor Hughes (26 kills and 10 digs on the night) — coasted to an easy first-set victory (30-25), pounding the Trojans with a .380 hitting percentage.

The Tigers took advantage of the Trojans meager hitting percentage in the second set (.093) while dominating defensively en route to another impressive set victory (30-25).

But while Pacific had upset on its mind, the Trojans recognized that their season had been filled with late-match heroics.

Friday night would be no different.

In a move, that seemed to be out of desperation or an attempt at strategy, coach Bill Ferguson began the third set by substituting senior outside hitter Tyler Stevens and former-starting libero sophomore Andrew Pizula into the lineup.

The move paid off, as the Trojans’ played inspired volleyball for the first time in two weeks behind junior captain Murphy Troy’s 26 kills, junior middle blocker Austin Zahn’s 10 blocks, and Pizula’s 18 digs. USC mounted an 8-0 run in the set (30-23), and quickly changed the direction of the game. Despite a tie at 26 late in the fourth set, the Trojans’ played their best defense in recent memory, posting a match-high seven blocks in the set (32-30), as they forced a fifth and final set.

By the fifth set, the writing was clearly written on the wall. Behind a match-high .538 hitting percentage, USC quickly got out in front of the Pacific, 9-3, as they stunned Pacific with another remarkable comeback (15-10).

Typically a comeback of Friday night’s proportions would warrant celebration or at the very least, a renewed sense of confidence inside the Trojan locker room. However, with their shortest recovery time of the season, the unexpected loss of senior leader Hunter Current to a mild ankle sprain and a duel with the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (8-4, 7-4) the next afternoon, USC had no time to rest on its laurels.

True to recent form, the Trojans welcomed reigning National Player of the Year Brad Lawson and Stanford to the Galen Center in a giving mood, as they surrendered the first set without a fight or sense of urgency (16-30), finishing with more errors (10) than kills (nine).

“I don’t really know what the problem has been with us starting matches,” sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli said. “Maybe we aren’t focused enough at the beginning. I cannot really tell you, but it’s something that we need to fix by the end of the season or our national championship hopes will be dashed.”

Stanford, behind a balanced attack in the second set (7.5 blocks on defense) and three aces on offense, continued their onslaught of the Trojans (30-28) in a frame that all but squashed any hope inside the Galen Center of a repeat of the night before.

While Ciarelli (career-high 23 kills and 14 digs) single-handedly attempted to get the Trojans back in the match with a crucial block and kill to secure the third set (30-28), Saturday’s ending was more befitting of the February-version of the Trojans than the one that looked so poised and confident just a month earlier at UC Irvine.

Cardinal sophomore libero Erik Shoji helped his No. 2 team put a strangle hold on a convincing road win, with six crucial digs in the final frame (30-23), as Stanford eased its way to a season-high five game winning streak, leaving the Trojans once again perplexed at the recent turn of events.

“Our team is a very talented group of individuals that have high expectations to win and the fact that we are not winning is frustrating,” USC senior middle blocker Steven Shandrick said. “We just need to focus on taking the season one game at a time.

For the Trojans, the weekend’s mixed results provide an appropriate evaluation for the team’s recent topsy-turvy performance. The road ahead for USC doesn’t get any easier, as they face the No. 1 Cal State Northridge Matadors on Wednesday night at the Galen Center. While the game presents an opportunity for the Trojans to stake some revenge, you can bet the only thing on the team’s mind at this point is trying to improve going toward the home stretch.

“I think we all had higher expectations than where we are right now, but this is a good league and losses are going to happen,” Ciarelli said. “This weekend is an improvement from how we had played the last few weeks. I think now that we are more of a team we will be able to improve a lot in the next few weeks.”