The long, winding and exciting road of the regular season is finally over for the USC men’s volleyball team. The postseason is here.
Riding a 17-match winning streak, the top-ranked and first-seeded Trojans (22-4, 18-4) will begin their quest for a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title Saturday night when they host eighth-seeded Cal State Northridge (12-17, 8-14) in the tournament quarterfinals.
The Trojans should have little trouble remembering these opponents, as they closed their regular season last Saturday by sweeping the Matadors in Northridge.
Though a top-five showdown looms in the semifinals against the winner of the UCLA/UC Irvine match, the Trojans are continuing with a match-by-match mindset and have put all their focus into practice this week, aiming to avoid a first-round upset.
The Trojans have been especially effective lately in getting off to strong starts and using that early momentum to propel them to victory.
The team has won the first set by six points or more in seven of its last nine matches, all wins.
“It’s all attributed to our mental focus when we step out on the court,” senior co-captain and middle blocker Steve Shandrick said. “We realize that you can’t ease into the game because, if you do, your opponent is going to step on you.”
USC coach Bill Ferguson credited this beneficial trend in large part to the Trojans’ other senior captain, outside hitter Tony Ciarelli.
“Lots of guys take time … to work their way into the match before they can be effective. Tony has the unique ability to be really good right off the bat,” Ferguson said.
As the postseason begins, the team will turn to Ciarelli and Shandrick for the pair’s veteran savviness and postseason experience.
“Tony does a great job of keeping us focused and tense on the court during the match while Steve does a really good job of being the lead-by-example guy,” Ferguson said. “They work off each other very well, so we’re going to need their experience and leadership when things aren’t going our way so much.”
After being the heavy favorites in the MPSF tournament last year, the Trojans enter this conference tournament as the favorites once again.
USC’s path should be more difficult this time around, as they face heavy competition from the No. 2-No. 5 seeds.
All five squads, the Trojans included, were within one game of each other in conference play before the Trojans pulled away on the final night of the regular season.
“Last year it was us and everybody else,” Ferguson said. “This year, five teams can win this thing.”
Though the two captains have been invaluable to the team’s rousing success, there have also been contributions from players outperforming most preseason expectations.
Shandrick praised freshman setter Micah Christenson for his high level of play this season.
“He’s been very mature coming in as a freshman and being the setter for this team,” Shandrick said. “I think he’s shown tremendous leadership.”
Ferguson, on the other hand, gave credit to redshirt junior outside hitter Steven Mochalski.
“He’s been in the program for three years, had some nicks and bruises, but he’s done a phenomenal job to be such a big part of what we’re doing,” Ferguson said. “Even when statistically he’s not great, he’s almost always doing something positive for us. He always brings something to the table.”