USC faces a pair of tough home matches

The No. 1 USC mens’ volleyball team is primed to take a big step in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation race for the top seed with a set of weekend matches against No. 11 UC San Diego and No. 2 UC Irvine on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

The Trojans (18-4, 14-4) have been riding a hot streak to the tune of 13 consecutive matches, including two wins against No. 3 UCLA and No. 5 Stanford.

After beating Stanford last weekend, USC coach Bill Ferguson cited a key lesson that will help the Trojans fight through the remaining four regular-season matches before the conference tournament.

Tough to beat · Freshman middle blocker Ben Lam and the Trojans are the top-ranked team in the country and are poised to make a title run. - Corey Marquetti | Daily Trojan

“Stanford has lots of control and doesn’t give up easy points,” Ferguson said. “For us to be able to win is a good test for us going into the conference championship.”

Throughout the stretch, the Trojans have featured a lineup that has rotated three pin-hitters in two-spots with much success.

“We figured in the beginning that we would have different lineups,” Ferguson said. “Our edge is that we can morph for different situations, using any pair of [junior opposite hitter] Maddison [McKibbin], [sophomore opposite hitter] Tanner [Jansen] or [junior outside hitter Steven] Mochalski in those two spots.”

Despite a shuffling lineup, the Trojans have showed a level of composure far beyond their years. When asked about the prevailing theme of the current stretch, Ferguson and senior co-captain and outside hitter Tony Ciarelli echoed each other.

“We’ve been playing loose, not thinking too much,” Ciarelli said. “We haven’t let a team ranked below us beat us yet. It’s just a matter of maturity.”

The 2012 Trojans feature a less traditional maturity level than in years past. The 2011 team graduated four senior starters, including two All-American captains.

This year’s team works with a more nuanced dynamic of personalities including youth, veteran leadership and a simplified outlook on the season.

“There’s a clean slate with this group. This is a looser group [than 2011],” Ferguson said. “They understand taking things for what they are and always have their eyes on the next goal.”

The weekend will feature a pair of matches that has become familiar to the Trojans: a lesser-ranked team clawing for a shot at the postseason followed by a juggernaut.

UC San Diego (8-16, 6-13) is attempting to make a late push for the postseason. Though the team’s record isn’t daunting at a glance, the Tritons have been one of the hottest teams in the NCAA, notching a victory against No. 3 UCLA and two wins against No. 15 UC Santa Barbara over the last five matches.

“[UCSD is] a desperate team without an agenda, and that’s a very dangerous type of team to play,” Ferguson said. “They’ll bring their A-game.”

Saturday’s match against UC Irvine (19-4, 15-4) has the makings of a real test of the Trojans’ mettle. The Anteaters feature a nation-leading serving attack that fires 1.78 aces per set.

“We need to improve our high-ball hitting for Irvine,” Ferguson said. “They have great servers and will get us out of system at times so we need to be able to survive them.”

All told, the Trojans’ success hinges on their ability to continue to put inferior and competitive teams away.

“We need to continue the level of assertiveness,” Ferguson said. “We’ve been good at putting teams away.”

Both games will be played at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center.