The No. 1 Trojans were quick and decisive in proving their top ranking, winning 25-18, 25-17, and 25-20 in straight sets Wednesday against No. 12 Cal State Northridge (1-3, 0-1).
In the process, the Trojans also earned some much-needed redemption, as the Matadors ended the Trojans’ 2010 season with a four-set win in the MPSF Tournament’s first round last spring. The recent win, however, was also the first time USC has beaten Northridge in 17 matches.
Earlier in the week, USC coach Bill Ferguson continually stressed focus on the Trojan side of the net, especially in regards to honing their passing and defense.
Paired with their potent offense, this turned out to be the recipe for success.
USC dramatically outpaced the Matadors in hitting percentage (.455 to .227), blocks (5.5 to 1.0) and digs (29 to 20).
Northridge also finished with 18 service errors, compared to just eight for USC.
Freshman outside hitter Brandon Lebrock led the Matadors with 10 kills and senior libero Kaleo Baxter led the team with eight digs.
The Trojans executed Ferguson’s plan to near perfection. Northridge’s vaunted serving attack was annulled by strong passing by the Trojans, who finished with only two serve receive errors.
Behind sharp passing, senior setter Riley McKibbin exposed the aptly-named Matador defense, dishing out 27 assists that led to a .540 kill percentage.
“The middle attack in volleyball is just like running the ball up the middle in football,” Ferguson said. “If you can establish it successfully, the other parts of the game become much more open.
With most passes coming right to McKibbin, the quick middle attack became available on nearly every play.
The Trojans showcased their quick and sharp middle attack, led by seven kills from senior middle blocker Austin Zahn, followed by three kills from junior middle blocker Steven Shandrick.
Both Shandrick and Zahn hit above an astronomical .500 clip.
“We always start by attacking their middle blocker. We have two great middle blockers – two of the best in the league,” McKibbin said. “I can set them anywhere and expect them to put it away.”
This strategy worked well for the Trojans. Once the middle attack was established, McKibbin’s outside sets were often met by only one blocker at a time.
This led to opportunities for junior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, who led the charge with 11 kills.
Senior opposite hitter Murphy Troy had a monstrous match, finishing with 10 kills at a .667 kill percentage, displaying a bevy of tips and tools over and around the Matador block in conjunction with his intimidating power attack.
“All the credit goes to the passers. We had great passing, which led to great sets to me and the rest of the hitters,” Troy said. “Riley could get one-on-ones all the time. At that point, putting the ball away is easy.”
Ferguson reinforced his co-captains’ benefits from a strong passing game.
“The key [to a strong middle attack] is that we’re passing the ball great,” Ferguson said. “[Freshman libero] Henry Cassiday is playing great volleyball, and Ciarelli and [sophomore outside hitter] Maddison McKibbin are passing great too.”
Cassiday finished with 13 digs in his first career conference match.
“Our technique looked good. If we prepare in the gym and come with the right tools, we can handle anything thrown our way,” Ferguson said.