No. 8 men’s volleyball visits Pepperdine

Following two big wins this past weekend over conference rivals, the men’s volleyball team looks to carry its momentum into Malibu on Thursday when the Trojans visit Pepperdine. The rematch between the Trojans and the Waves will help shape the final standings in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference heading into the postseason.

The No. 8 Trojans (14-7, 12-6 MPSF) currently sit in fourth place in the MPSF standings, one spot behind the No. 3 Waves (19-4, 14-4). The Trojans defeated Pepperdine earlier this season at home on Jan. 16 in four sets. USC came into that game as the No. 8 team in the country according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association national poll, upsetting the then-No. 2 Waves.

Both teams have already clinched spots in the MPSF tournament and would play first round games at home the way it stands. USC could possibly earn an easier matchup in the second round of the tournament by leapfrogging Pepperdine in the standings, however. Additionally, USC could lose its spot in fourth place and have to travel for the first round if it does not close out the season strong.

The Trojans have four remaining games in conference play as well as one non-conference match before the end of the regular season. In front of the Trojans in the standings are No. 1 Hawai’i (20-3, 15-2), No. 5 UC Irvine (20-4, 14-3) then the Waves. Behind the Trojans are No. 9 UC Santa Barbara (15-8, 10-8), No. 6 BYU (13-8, 10-8), No. 10 Long Beach State (13-11, 9-10) and No. 12 UCLA (11-10, 7-10). The Trojans could finish first in the standings and are guaranteed to finish at least seventh.

The top eight teams in the 12-team conference qualify for the conference tournament, which determines the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Trojans qualified for the tournament last season as the eighth seed but were knocked out by first seed and eventual conference champion BYU in the first round. They did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Trojan, but recent victories indicate that the team might finally be getting back to playing at its full potential.

The Trojans opened the season at 7-0 overall and 6-0 in MPSF play, climbing as high as No. 2 in the AVCA national poll. The Trojans then dropped seven of their next 11 matches, including four in a row in conference, and the Trojans nearly fell out of the AVCA top 10. But since then, the Trojans have won three MPSF matches in a row and don’t have any opponents left on their schedule who have beaten them this year.

After beating Long Beach State over spring break, the team took down UC Santa Barbara and UCLA last weekend at home. All three of the last wins went to five sets, marking the ninth time the Trojans have gone the distance in a match and the seventh time they’ve emerged victorious. Head coach Bill Ferguson said the number of high-intensity matches the team has played this year should pay off down the road.

“As we’ve been trying to find ourselves, it’s good that we keep getting in these battles,” he said.

Ferguson said the key for the team’s win over UCLA was good passing. He said that the team’s middle blockers — sophomore Andy Benesh, junior Tommy Leonard and senior Robert Feathers — were all hitting particularly well, and the team just needed to make sure senior setter Micah Christenson received good passes so he could set up the attack from the middle.

“Tommy, Robert and Andy had fantastic numbers, we just weren’t passing the ball well enough to get them the ball, and that’s credit to UCLA’s serving,” he said. “[But] I thought we picked up the passing.”

Junior libero Brooks Varni agreed, saying the offense is in good hands with Christenson and the array of Trojan hitters if he and the other passers can do their jobs.

“It’s about letting Micah do his thing, he’s the best in the world,” he said. “We just have to get it in his general vicinity.”

Varni said after the win over UCLA that the team finally got out of its midseason funk by playing with more energy.

“We’re playing really hard and we’re having fun,” he said. “That’s the most important thing that kind of gets lost in all this.”

Ferguson said it was crucial for the team to perform well during this part of the season, not only to earn a home court playoff match but also to ensure that the team is playing at its highest level going into playoffs.

“We just want to be playing good volleyball going into April,” he said. “We know that we’ve got to be good in April.”

The Trojans and the Waves will start on Thursday at 7 p.m.