With USC and UC Irvine deadlocked at three in the fifth and final set of what has become one of the best rivalries in collegiate men’s volleyball, it appeared Trojans’ sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli would be called for an illegal maneuver, which aided an easy kill for USC.
After more than a minute in which the No. 11 Anteaters (11-13, 6-11) vehemently pleaded with the line judge to reconsider her call, the point was awarded to No. 6 USC (12-9, 9-8), a call symbolic of a match in which the Trojans did just enough to get by.
For the second time this season, USC needed late game heroics to prevail over the defending NCAA champions, in a match with stakes higher than their five-set come-from-behind victory over the Anteaters in January.
“Through all of the adversity, these guys have come to the gym everyday looking to get better as a team,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “They say that you learn more about people’s character during times of adversity, and after a match like tonight’s I can say that right now I am pretty happy with the character of this team.”
In the first set, however, it was urgency, not adversity, that propelled USC to a nail-biting 32-30 set victory, thanks in large part to the five service aces contributed by four different players.
Despite the momentum gained in the first set, the Anteaters — behind reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Freshman of the Year Carson Clark and Corey Yoder, son of USC volleyball legend Bob Yoder — crawled their way back into the match with consecutive set victories (30-28, 30-22). Clark, who early in the second set suffered a bloody nose in a nasty spill along the sideline, had a match-high 29 kills in defeat.
But as has been the case all season, the Trojans’ battled back in the fourth set in large part because of four critical errors by UCI’s Clark and outside hitter Jordan Default. Down the stretch, the Trojans relied on the killer instincts of outside hitters Ciarelli and junior Murphy Troy to close the set, as each contributed four kills.
In the final set, Ciarelli’s controversial helper essentially ended the match. After the Anteaters lost in their desperate attempt to reverse the call, the Trojans took advantage of a team who virtually checked out moments after its futile debate ended. Ciarelli would add seven kills in the final frame, as USC put the finishing touches on a match that truly served as a testament to its resolve.
The Trojans will close out the home portion of the season Saturday night at 7 p.m. against their crosstown rivals, the No. 7 UCLA Bruins. The match will be the teams’ second showdown of the season, with USC taking the first clash over UCLA (14-9, 9-7) in four sets back on Jan. 13.