The USC men’s volleyball team might be out of the playoff picture, but it certainly is not backing down as the season comes to a close.
The young players were hungry for a taste of the postseason experience as they headed out on the road for their final two games, both against playoff-bound teams. Their first stop was in Santa Barbara on Wednesday, where they took on No. 7 UCSB.
But despite their enthusiasm, the Trojans (6-17) were defeated by a more experienced squad by a score of 25-23, 25-19, 21-25, 25-17.
The Gauchos (15-14, 11-12 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) recently clinched a spot in the MPSF playoffs, but a recent stretch of losses had them clamoring for momentum as they entered Wednesday’s match against USC. Despite being one of the top defensive teams in the nation, UCSB had dropped consecutive matches to BYU and Cal Baptist, but the team was able to regain its stride against USC.
The Trojans had a number of opportunities to take control of Wednesday’s match early on, but they tapered off near the end of the first two sets. Both teams hit poorly at the start of the match, but six crucial aces from the Gauchos gave them the advantage they needed in sets one and two.
“Our hitting percentage wasn’t very good but we were making stops and we held them to a pretty low percentage as well,” USC head coach Bill Ferguson said. “Defensively, we did a nice job, but we made too many service errors and just dug ourselves too big of a hole.”
Though the Trojans were able to contain the Gaucho’s best player, Dylan Davis, they had a difficult time overcoming the duo of outside hitter Austin Kingi and middle blocker Evan Licht. The two combined for seven aces and 18 digs and gave UCSB a significant advantage in the match.
“Their team usually goes as Dylan Davis goes,” Ferguson said. “And we held Davis to .200 [hitting percentage], which is great, but we couldn’t stop their other outside hitters.”
But the USC squad showed some signs of life in third set. Despite falling behind early, the Trojans surged, riding a wave of strong hitting to an 11-5 run and a sizable lead. The Gauchos put up a strong fight and evened the score four times, but the Trojans pulled through and were able to take the set.
It looked as though the Trojans success would continue into the fourth set when they jumped out to an early lead, but this time the Gauchos responded. The combination of strong serving by UCSB and atrocious hitting from USC gave the Gauchos all they needed to win the set and the match.
“In the third set, we did a great job of bouncing back,” Ferguson said. “It was the best execution I saw throughout the match, but in the fourth we just fell behind and made too many attack errors.”
Once again, the Trojans were victims of their own poor night at the net. They hit a dismal .135 and were overpowered by the Gauchos strong defense. Though the Trojans were able to keep pace on digs, they were out-blocked by ten and out-served by six aces. UCSB simply outplayed the Trojans en route to their 15th win of the season.
Though the rest of the team appeared somber after another loss, Ferguson was happy to see some of his younger players step up to the challenge. Freshman middle blocker Josh Kirchner put forth an especially encouraging showing, along with some other Trojan youngsters.
“Josh Kirchner had a fantastic night tonight, he hit great and he served really well,” Ferguson said. “[Robert] Feathers was okay, [Austin] Rysyk came in and sparked us pretty good off the bench and J.B. Green had some good digs for us. So I was happy with those performances.”
The Trojans might not be headed to the playoffs, the younger players’ performances against the Gauchos provide some hope for the future. As one of the youngest teams in the NCAA, the USC men’s volleyball team seems to be poised for a few impressive seasons down the road.
The Trojans close out the season tomorrow with a rivalry matchup against UCLA. The match will be played at the Bruins’ newly refurbished Pauley Pavilion starting at 7 p.m.