Trojans hit the road with postseason looming large

Spring break could not have come at a better time for the USC men’s volleyball team, which has struggled mightily of late, dropping five of its last six games.

But with only six games remaining in the regular season, the Trojans return to action and must now make the final push if they hope to reach the playoffs.

USC entered its spring break on a bit of an upswing after a win over No. 3 Pepperdine. Although the Trojans had dropped the previous two games of their three-game homestand, the win over the Waves gave them plenty to celebrate.

Pepperdine took the early lead with a first-set victory, but USC would mount a comeback. The Trojans responded in grand fashion, taking the next three sets and defeating the Waves 19-25, 25-19, 27-25, 25-18.

The match’s most exciting moment came at the end of the third set, when USC scored three consecutive points to win the set after Pepperdine had forced a set point.

“Last week was great,” USC head coach Bill Ferguson said. “I thought the team practiced with a real sense of urgency with everything they did. We’ve been talking about winning on the court and working on our communication as a team on the floor, and I thought we executed a lot better.”

Recently, the Trojans’ main focus for practice has been its service game. Though USC has been more conservative at the service line in past years, the team has shifted to a more aggressive attack. Sophomores Micah Christenson and Cristian Rivera have thrived under this new strategy, combining for 55 aces on the season thus far.

But though the Trojans are now ranked among the top teams in the nation in aces, their aggressive serving has also brought a rise in service errors.

It is for this reason that Ferguson looks to make some adjustments to his team’s approach.

“We need to be better with our ace-to-errors ratio,” Ferguson said. “As a team we’re OK but not great, and that’s being carried by two guys. So we’re going to dial the rest of the guys back a bit.”

But USC is going to need more than just a good serving game if they want to beat Cal Baptist on Thursday. The Lancers, who currently sit in the very playoff spot the Trojans wish to claim, have won four of their last five matches and have risen to seventh in the NCAA rankings.

The recent success of this Cal Baptist squad largely rests on its dangerous pair of outside hitters, sophomore Guilherme Koepp and senior Levi Cabral, both from Brazil. The duo has taken control of recent matches with powerful serving and looks to be a major obstacle in USC’s road to the playoffs.

“We’re always focusing on serving and passing, and that’s going to be a huge key,” Ferguson said. “Their two outside hitters are among two of the best servers in the league. If we can keep those guys at bay, or at least control what they’re doing a little bit more, then I think we’re going to be alright.”

Regardless of Trojans’ change in approach, the loss of Ben Lam makes the playoff hunt significantly more challenging. Late in the second match against Hawai’i, the sophomore middle blocker blew out his ankle and now appears to be out for the season. Now, freshman Josh Kirchner must take the place of the injured Lam, who was one of the team’s defensive leaders.

With only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Trojans must play their best volleyball to continue into the postseason. After Cal Baptist, USC will head to Utah to face top-ranked BYU before returning to the Galen Center for their final two home games.