Several words come to mind when looking back on top-ranked USC’s exit as a semifinalist from the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament last May:
Premature, unsatisfying, disappointing.
Ask anyone related to the team and they’d say even these words remain a severe understatement. Losing to a fourth-seeded, 14-loss UC Santa Barbara team was not the ending anyone expected for a squad with 23 wins, the most in the Trojans’ storied history.
To add to the burn, the upset marked the departure of some of the best players to grace USC’s volleyball hardwood in quite some time.
Of course, the first that comes to mind is opposite hitter Murphy Troy, a four-year starter with a laundry list of accolades: two-time first team All-American, 2011 National and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year, USC rally-scoring era record holder for kills (1,902), aces (143), matches with double figure kills (101) and matches with 20-plus kills (32).
But Troy’s supporting cast was much more than capable in its own right. Joining him at graduation was setter Riley McKibbin, a 2011 first team All-American setter who ranked second in the nation in assists last spring, outside hitter Tri Bourne, a 2011 All-American third teamer, and four-year starting middle blocker Austin Zahn.
To make another understatement, those are big shoes to fill.
With the Gaucho’s four-set victory, it seemed as if the Trojans had missed their golden opportunity to bring home the team’s fifth national championship. But as attention was turned toward players on their way out, sixth-year USC coach Bill Ferguson remained focused on what lay ahead.
“Despite what it might appear to be, we would like to think of it as more of a case of reloading than rebuilding this year,” Ferguson said before this season started. “We have every reason to believe we can be among the teams playing in the Galen Center in early May.”
Now, with only one month left in the season, Ferguson has managed to recapture much of the momentum lost from 2011. Under his guidance, the Trojans currently rank No. 2 in the nation with a 16-4 record and an 11-4 mark in MPSF play. The team has gotten to that point riding an 11-game winning streak, which is one win short of tying the USC record for most consecutive victories, set by -— you guessed it — the 2011 team.
With five conference matches left, including one against No. 1 UC Irvine on April 7, the Trojans still have a ways to go before they can begin to think about an NCAA tournament run.
But considering the recent dominance USC has exhibited, entering the tournament ranked nationally in the top three is not, by any means, a long shot.
Senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, a four-year starter and National Player of the Year candidate, has had a firm hand in the Trojans’ recent success. Ciarelli is tied for third in the nation in kills per set (4) and sixth in aces per set (.44). His team-high 265 kills and 30 aces put him on pace for his best season yet.
At his side is co-captain Steven Shandrick, a senior middle blocker that has recorded 73 blocks and 127 kills this season, and junior opposite hitter Maddison McKibbin, who has helped the Trojans to a perfect record since his return from a nagging ankle injury.
But in addition to its exceptional play, USC has one more advantage that could prove to be the tipping point in its quest to notch another title, something the 2011 team was forced to go without — home court advantage.
For the first time ever, USC will host the NCAA tournament at the Galen Center, giving the Trojans some much-needed home crowd support.
Considering the last three tournaments were in University Park, Penn., Stanford, Calif., and Provo, Utah, a five-minute walk to their home court is certainly a welcome sight for the youthful Trojans, who only have two seniors on the squad this year.
Of course, the goal of a national championship remains several weeks and many hard-fought matches away from becoming a reality. But if the first three months of the season are any indication, the Trojans are ready for the challenge.
And that might be the biggest understatement of them all.
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