The USC men’s volleyball team is gearing up to take on another ranked opponent in No. 15 UC San Diego at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Trojans, who are now 2-7 on the season, are looking for a bounceback after a close four-set loss to No. 4 UC Irvine last week.
This game is a departure from Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference play and the team’s second west coast road game following a 3-2 set win at California State Northridge. The young team had to face high-level competition early in the season on the east coast with losses against No. 11 George Mason, No. 9 Penn State and No. 15 Ohio State and is now hungry to regain its ranked status from the preseason.
“I still think that we’re a top-three team in the nation,” redshirt sophomore outside hitter Billy Fauntleroy said. “We’re a young team, we’re just still learning how to play together. These young guys are learning how to play at a much higher level than they were half a year ago.”
USC isn’t the only one coming in with a tough pre-conference schedule. The Tritons have had big wins against Loyola-Chicago, No. 12 Princeton and most recently No. 14 Concordia and improved to 8-3 overall.
A five-underclassmen lineup will have to hone in on in-game adjustments and anticipate UCSD’s offensive plays. The Trojans were outblocked 13-6 by Irvine with USC junior setter Chris Hall logging more successful blocks than all pin hitters combined.
While middle blockers junior Sam Lewis and senior Vecas Lewin were able to cover ground and stop five Irvine hits, outside hitters have to recognize the setter’s move on the other side of the net and anticipate where the opposing hitter will be in time to block shots.
In the week’s practices leading up to the San Diego trip, head coach Jeff Nygaard focused on the front row’s footwork and across-the-court reading.
“That’s a space that I think we definitely have to put some time and energy into so that [we can say] ‘Hey, this guy’s going to hit this hit. We’ve got to get four hands in this space across the net to shut it down,’” Nygaard said. “If we can execute that well, then our defense is going to all of a sudden have these big open spaces that they know exactly where to be.”
The Trojans’ net coverage will continue to be a necessity in stopping point runs. In UCSD’s three-set sweep over Concordia, junior outside hitter Kyle McCauley had 11 kills, followed by junior opposite hitter Collin Shannon’s nine kills that contributed to the offense’s .258 efficiency.
Of the Tritons’ eight wins, four have been three-set sweeps with multi-point leads perpetuated by winning the blocking game, something that USC is looking to accomplish this weekend.
On USC’s side of the net, look out for offensive production from true freshman outside hitter Adam Flood, who led the team with 13 kills in his third game as a Trojan. Hall continues to prove his value as a key asset beyond his setting skills by leading the team in digs and making an impressionable impact in serving.
Overall, the Trojans are looking to kickstart conference play with a win that would turn around their road struggles and build positive in-game experience to look back on in order to further improve their season record.
“To me, it has nothing to do with the school or the ranking,” Nygaard said. “It’s what are we going to come in as, so I expect us to go in there with the effort that we can win a match, with the mentality, with the game plan, with the energy, with passion — everything you want that we can go down there and compete for the W.”