The USC men’s volleyball team faces both a cross-country foe and a familiar conference opponent this weekend on back-to-back nights.
USC (11-4, 9-4 in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play) will host No. 6 Penn State (13-1, 6-0) Friday, and travel to Malibu Saturday to take on No. 10 Pepperdine (8-8, 6-7).
Though the team is playing their best volleyball of the year, the Nittany Lions provide a challenge.
“Their opposite hitters are young like us,” said coach Bill Ferguson. “They have fantastic setters like us. Their big stick is going up against our big stick.”
That big stick for Penn State would be first-team All-American opposite hitter Joe “Thunder” Sunder. And on the Trojans side is senior opposite hitter Tony Ciarelli, a second-team All-American from last year and MPSF and AVCA National Player of the Week after the Trojans’ successful Bay Area trip two weeks ago.
The match will also be a rare meeting for the Trojans against an east coast team.
“We don’t often get the opportunity to play out of conference,” said freshman middle blocker Robert Feathers. “It’s an exciting challenge.”
One reason for the Trojans’ drastic improvement following a sweep at the hands of UCLA has been a strong commitment to defense. The team leads the nation in blocks, and is No.2 in opposing hitting percentage, holding opponents to a .202 success rate.
“[Assistant coach] Jeff Nygaard’s game plans and blocking schemes have really become effective in his second season,” Ferguson said. “The upperclassmen are used to his system and terminology, while the freshmen and sophomores don’t know any other system”.
Feathers has noticed the intensity as well. “Credit needs to be given to our passers,” he said. “Steve [Shandrick] has stepped up his game lately, and Henry [Cassiday] has become a great leader on the back row.”
A position of flux this year for the Trojans has been the outside hitter position opposite to Ciarelli. Currently, junior Maddison McKibbin is starting after his return from an ankle injury, but the position has also been manned by fellow juniors Steven Mochalski and Jeff Carlson.
“We’re going with whoever is hot when the time comes” Ferguson said. “Maddison has been our best blocker, so we might also switch him to opposite hitter to play alongside Tanner [Jansen].”
After this weekend, a matchup on March 14 brings an opportunity for revenge against top-ranked UCLA. Yet, the Trojans are focused solely on this weekend’s slate.
“It would be a tremendous disservice to Penn State and Pepperdine if we overlook them heading into the weekend,” Ferguson said.