Men’s volleyball aims to find wins against SoCal powerhouses

The USC men’s volleyball team hosts No. 5 Pepperdine Thursday evening.

Freshman setter Chris Hall (left) sets the ball for freshman middle blocker Sam Lewis (right). Lewis has recorded 114 kills in the 2018 season, while Hall has 424 assists to his name. Sunny Dong | Daily Trojan

USC comes off a demoralizing loss to No. 4 UC Irvine on Saturday, their second sweep to the Anteaters this year. The outside hitter duo of juniors Ryan Moss and Jack Wyett both had lackluster performances; Moss had nine kills while Wyett had eight.

Pepperdine’s last game was a 3-1 win over No. 3 Hawai’i. Pepperdine junior outside hitter David Wieczorek had a season-high 20 kills on a .390 hitting percentage to complement a well-rounded effort of three aces, seven digs and four blocks. After their performance over the Rainbow Warriors, Pepperdine now enjoys a three-game win streak, all against top 15 schools.

The biggest difference in USC and Pepperdine’s games may boil down to Pepperdine’s track record of closing out victories against top opponents, unlike USC.

USC has lost many of its sets this year. However, head coach Jeff Nygaard continues to focus on the process and finds it encouraging that the Trojans have remained competitive in most of their games.

With senior night against UCLA Saturday, USC hopes to pull off the upset against Pepperdine tonight and gain some momentum before heading into the final weeks of the regular season and facing the Bruins.

Nygaard said that the team learned a lot about their crosstown rival when facing them the first time.

“You also get an avalanche of understanding what their capabilities are and what their tendencies are,” he said. “It becomes much more of a chess match. It puts you in a position to where if you’re able to execute the game plan.”

The Bruins defeated the Trojans during their first season matchup in Westwood by a score of 3-0. However, Nygaard did not try to downplay the storied history USC has with UCLA.

“Rivalries are fantastic. There’s a lot of emotions involved, there’s a lot of pride involved,” Nygaard said. “But as a volleyball player, from my perspective, I always viewed it as, my job was always to get every point possible.”

UCLA, however, happens to be one of the toughest opponents in the country for any team, and getting every point will be challenging. With a 19-5 overall record, the Bruins have proven their ability to consistently defeat top-15 schools such as No. 4 UC Irvine, No. 13 Grand Canyon University and No. 14 Concordia University Irvine, all of whom have defeated USC this season.

UCLA senior opposite hitter Christian Hessenauer is one of the top players in the league and leads in total points and kills this season. Along with senior outside hitters JT Hatch and Jake Arnitz, the Bruins boast a number of veteran weapons that fuel their high-powered offense. UCLA is +222, +196 and +88 in total kills, assists and aces, respectively, against its opponents this year — a recipe for success.

For USC seniors Jon Rivera and Gert Lisha, Saturday night will be the last opportunity they have to play in front of their home crowd at the Galen Center. Rivera, a 6-foot-6 opposite hitter from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Lisha, the team’s starting setter who began his collegiate career at Lewis University in Illinois, have faced the challenge of being the only two seniors on an otherwise young and inexperienced team.

“These guys have been with us, they’ve been fighting since day one, they’ve put in the time, they’ve put in the sweat and the tears,” Nygaard said. “USC should be proud of the members that are graduating from this season.”

The rest of the USC squad hopes they will be able to properly respect their graduating seniors in a big way — with a win over UCLA.