Volleyball sweeps UCLA in conference opener

Freshman setter Raquel Lázaro pieced together the Trojan offense that collected 48 kills against the Bruins on Wednesday night at Galen Center. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

In its conference opener, which featured the famous crosstown rivalry, the women’s volleyball team protected its home court against UCLA in a 3-0 set (25-21, 25-8, 29-27) victory at Galen Center on Wednesday night.

In the first set, the Bruins stayed on USC’s heels, but were not able to close out the match. From there, the Trojans surged ahead in the second set before battling it out in the third set to sweep the Bruins.

“Our servers are getting a lot better,” said head coach Brent Crouch. “We had eight aces, one error and a bunch of overpasses. And that was really the match.”

The energy in Galen Center was electric as the Trojans prepared for the start of their Pac-12 season. Before the match, fans were already on their feet, causing an uproar in the moments leading up to the opening set. The familiar melodies of “The Spirit of Troy” permeated the air as a section of timid UCLA supporters filed into the stadium. Even the men’s volleyball team made an appearance, sporting lighthearted costumes to boost morale.

“I knew the energy and emotion was going to be off the charts,” Crouch said. “I came in and prepped to not have to provide any of that, in fact the opposite. [I] just told the girls to breathe and not get carried away.”

The Trojans clinched a 25-21 win in the first set to establish the tone of the rest of the match. A strong defensive start left them hitting twice out of bounds in the opening stages of the set. From there, the Trojans maintained their lead, only losing it twice with the help of junior middle blocker Jasmine Gross, who ended the night with nine kills and a .444 hitting percentage. Gross is a new recruit who ranked among the top five NCAA blockers last year.

“We always knew she could move really well on the net,” Crouch said. “She’s really fast, continues to read the game well, and we spent a lot of time working on her blocking too. When we added her to the team, this result is what we expected.”

Spectacular digs from both sides elicited countless “ooh’s” and “ah’s” from all sides of Galen Center. Trailing by only one or two points for most of the first set, it was clear that the Bruins were still hungry for a win. At one point, the score rested at 13-13, with UCLA briefly pulling ahead of the home team. However a set-ending kill from junior outside hitter Emily Baptista sealed the Bruins’ fate.

Much like the previous set, the Trojans set a dominant tone coming into the second as they grabbed 4 unanswered points from the Bruins. USC’s outside hitters were firing on all cylinders, leading the offensive drive with 11 combined kills. It was evident that the Women of Troy were communicating efficiently, ending the game ahead by 17 points. Crouch attributed the success of the set to both a sturdy defense and outstanding individual performances in the service game.

“It was really good to see our team connecting well, especially in the second set,” Crouch said. “[Junior outside hitter Khalia Lanier] and [sophomore setter Raquel Lázaro] went back to serve for several points in a row. They just blew ‘em up.”

In the face of tough odds, the Bruins put up a solid fight in the final set. For the first time that night, they opened by taking the first 2 points, only to give one up after a faulty serve. Baptista, Lanier and sophomore outside hitter Brooke Botkin continued to shake up the UCLA defense, recording a combined total of three blocks and 37 kills. Lanier’s spiking consistency during high-pressure moments ensured a victory for the Women of Troy, despite UCLA sophomore outside hitter Mac May’s attempts to keep the match alive. The final score was 29-27. USC had swept the Bruins in three straight sets, but a revitalized UCLA offense had the Trojan fanbase sliding off the edge of their seats.

“They were crafty,” Crouch said. “They were tipping here, rolling there, they got all these different shots. We haven’t played a team that mixes in that much stuff. It got us scrambling in the third set.”

While the victory against the Bruins is sweet, the 9-3 Trojans still have more work to put in this weekend with a game against Colorado in Boulder on Sunday. In their last 10 meetings with the Buffalos, the Trojans have finished with a victory in all but one of them. However, they are taking this game as seriously as any other and will take the three days until the game to prepare. Referencing mishaps that took place in Milwaukee, Crouch is well aware of how the team can be inconsistent after big wins such as Wednesday’s. He hopes to keep his game plan tight as ever for Boulder.

“We have had some letdowns in the past,” Crouch said. “This upcoming match will be another opportunity to try to stay up and not slip. That’ll be everything we’re going to be talking about next weekend.”