With the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoff picture beginning to take shape, the USC men’s volleyball team (4-11) found themselves on the outside looking in as they headed to Honolulu for a weekend doubleheader. With the pressure on, the Trojans were unable to rise to the occasion, dropping both games in five sets.
Hawai’i (7-12) entered the weekend with a situation similar to the Trojans. The Warriors, led by freshman Sinisa Zarkovic, has enjoyed limited success this season, which has been highlighted by their four-game losing streak entering their game against the Trojans. The Trojans had a chance to make up for their own disappointing season with a pair of games against their underachieving hosts. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
USC was hot at the start of Friday’s match thanks to a combined seven kills from junior opposite Tanner Jansen and sophomore middle blocker Robert Feathers. Though they found themselves trailing 18-21 near the end of the first set, the Trojans went on a tear, winning nine of the next 13 points to win the set. They carried this momentum with them into the second set, taking an early lead and holding on to go up two sets to none.
But from there, it was all Warriors. Hawai’i rode a wave of aggressive serving and stellar passing to three consecutive set victories. And despite three match points in the fourth, the Trojans were unable to close out the match and were defeated 25-26, 21-25, 25-22, 26-24, 15-9.
“Everything was clicking for us offensively and defensively,” USC head coach Bill Ferguson said. “We saw our game plan play out even better than it did in the Stanford match, but once we went to the fifth it was pretty hard to turn the tide back in our favor.”
Though disappointing, Friday’s match featured a number of positives for the team, including a match-high 20 kills from Jansen and a season-high of nine service aces for the team. From a statistical standpoint, this was a great match for the Trojans but, unfortunately, they fell victim to an even better night from the Warriors.
“Hats off to them — they played a great match,” Ferguson said. “It was one of the toughest losses since I’ve been here at USC, and I thought our guys played their tails off.”
Looking to avenge Friday’s loss, Jansen once again took control of the Trojans in the first set of Sunday’s rematch. His leadership on the court allowed USC to stay ahead of a confident opposing squad. Although the Warriors were able to make it close in the end, Jansen’s seventh kill of the first set, followed by a decisive ace, gave the Trojans the first set 25-20.
Unfortunately, for the second time in three days, USC’s lead was to be short-lived. The Warriors turned it on in the second set, taking advantage of USC’s attacking errors and jumping out to a comfortable lead and an easy 25-21 victory. USC’s errant hitting continued into the third set and Hawai’i was able to take the 2-1 advantage.
Despite the strong play from Hawai’i, USC refused to go down in the fourth set. Much like the Warriors in their previous meeting, the Trojans needed to win to stay alive. This time, it was sophomore outside hitter Joey Booth leading the attack, with seven kills in the set and giving the Trojans a 25-23 win to force a fifth set.
“The fourth set was proof to me why we recruited these kids,” Ferguson said. “After losing back-to-back five set matches, I think most people would’ve quit, but they played the best volleyball they’ve played all year.”
Despite this display of resilience, USC’s struggles resurfaced in the fifth set. Although they took an early lead, the Trojans hit a dismal .056 and were unable to hold on for the win. The Warriors won 13 of the last 18 points en route to a 15-9 win in the fifth set and their second match victory of the weekend.
USC’s woes were made worse with the loss of sophomore middle blocker Ben Lam, who went down on Sunday with an what Ferguson called a “serious” ankle injury. With only nine matches remaining, this will make USC’s hunt for the playoffs even more difficult.
The team’s next match will be played in the Lyon Center on Friday at 7 p.m. against the No. 2 UC Irvine Anteaters.