Men’s volleyball unable to take a set against Pepperdine

Senior outside hitter Gianluca Grasso could be playing his final game as a Trojan when USC faces Lewis in the NCAA Tournament. (Josh Dunst/Daily Trojan)

The No. 5 USC men’s volleyball team fell to No. 4 Pepperdine 3-0 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference championship match Saturday night in Malibu.

This was the Trojans’ third MPSF Tournament runner-up finish since the tournament started in 1993. While this was Pepperdine’s fifth MPSF Tournament title, it was also its first since 2008.

Senior outside hitters Jack Wyett and Gianluca Grasso led the Trojans on offense with 13 and 10 digs, respectively. Senior outside hitter Ryan Moss contributed nine kills and eight digs, while sophomore setter Chris Hall added nine digs of his own.

On the opponent’s end, redshirt senior outside hitter David Wieczorek had 18 kills, seven digs and 2 aces while hitting .571 to lead the Waves in their victory over the Trojans. Senior outside hitter Michael Wexter had 10 kills and four blocks, senior outside hitter Kaleb Denmark added 8 kills and seven digs of his own and sophomore libero Spencer Wickens had seven digs to contribute to Pepperdine’s win.

“I think that we didn’t play our best game, and they played their best game for sure,” Grasso said. “Playing at home for them was a huge advantage. On our part of course there are things that looking back I think that we could’ve done better, but we have to look forward now.”

The Trojans started strong in the first set, recording 4 service aces on their way to a 10-6 lead over the Waves. Pepperdine began to catch up and trailed closely behind until they were able to pull ahead for a 17-16 lead. The Trojans tied the set three more times, but Pepperdine stayed ahead for a 25-23 finish.

The Waves kept their forward momentum in the second set, scoring the first 3 points and quickly garnering a 6-1 lead. They widened their lead to 21-12 before the Trojans started catching up to close in on the Waves 23-19. It was too little to late, however, as Pepperdine still managed to pull out a 25-20 win.

The teams traded leads for much of the third set, with 12 ties in the frame. At 25-25, a kill by Wieczorek and a combined block by Chamberlain and Wieczorek won the tournament for the Waves with a 27-25 set.

“It was pretty special,” Pepperdine head coach David Hunt said after the game. “It was special for me to do this in our home gym and to know that we’re going to the NCAAs, and to do it with Marv [Dunphy] on the bench. This team has put in a lot of hard work to get there.”

Despite the loss, Grasso said the 2019 season has been a turnaround year for USC men’s volleyball.

“Making it to the finals says it all, we worked hard for this and we made a big push at the end winning 11 out of 13 games so it was just about the momentum,” Grasso said. “We kept winning and we kept growing as a team.”

The outcome of this game gave Pepperdine an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. USC announced Sunday morning that it had earned an at-large bid and will face Lewis University in its first game with a rematch against No. 1 Hawaii looming. The Trojans have made 14 appearances in the NCAA tournament and won four times.

Preparation will be key this week leading up to the match.

“Definitely practicing in that Long Beach gym, getting used to the pyramid and getting used to the atmosphere down there,” Grasso said. “We can also always work on communication between our team. I think we just have to work hard as a team this last week so we can come out ready to play on [April 30].”

Head coach Jeff Nygaard is proud of his team’s persistance throughout the season.

“Our team has worked hard this season and has had many outstanding wins, it is validating to be able to continue our journey by being selected to play in the NCAA Championship,” Nygaard said. “Congratulations to the other teams who made the tournament, it is an exceptional field of competitors. We have played particularly well lately and we are peaking when it matters most. I believe we have our best volleyball ahead of us.”

The Trojans face Lewis April 30 at 5 p.m. at the Pyramid in Long Beach.