USC faces tough task against the Waves

Junior middle blocker Kyle Paulson is 12th in the nation in block assists with 49 and 20th in total blocks with 51, leading the Trojans in said categories and accounting for over one-third of the team’s blocks. (Drake Lee | Daily Trojan)

At first glance, USC’s 8-7 men’s volleyball record isn’t all that noteworthy. After all, the Trojans have already tied its number of losses from last season.

However, underneath the surface, the Trojans have played nine matches against ranked opponents and are the 10th-best team in the country, according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

“The iron sharpens iron,” said Head Coach Jeff Nygaard in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We have not had that many easy matches … we’ve been really chomping at the bit and really close on all of them.”

On Thursday and Saturday, USC will face yet another ranked team in No. 7 Pepperdine.  

Freshman outside hitter Dillon Klein leads the Trojans’ offense that is 10th in the nation in kills per set. Klein has 222 kills on the season and is 15th in the nation in kills per set. 

Aside from Klein, redshirt junior outside hitter Simon Gallas is 2nd on the team in kills and 1st in digs per set after winning All-MPSF First Team honors his redshirt sophomore year. 

In the front row, junior middle blocker Kyle Paulson has a team-leading 51 blocks so far despite missing two games. 

“Having trusted my teammates and them having my back as well has really helped me further my game,” Paulson said. “The coaches have been really supportive of technical things like my approach, my footwork and stuff.”

As a team, USC blocks 2.26 balls per set, good for 12th in the country.

“Defense is a good offense,” Klein said. “[We have to] put the ball on the floor, take care of our passes, make smart swings and block well.”

The Trojans will face a Pepperdine team that racks up 13.23 kills per set, the second-highest ratio in the nation. In comparison, the Trojans are 10th in the National Collegiate with 12.26 kills per set.

“They’ve got a really competitive setter in [junior Bryce] Dvorak,” Nygaard said. “He’s going to bring gas from the service line and challenge us there. They’ve got fifth-year senior Jaylen Jasper who elevates at a high point and just hits with some really extreme angles.”

The Waves are 10-8 with a 4-8 record against ranked teams. Jasper has 342 kills, more than double the number of the second-highest scorer on the team, senior outside hitter Akin Akinwumi. Nationally, the Stanford grad has the 2nd-most kills per set.

Meanwhile, Dvorak’s 10.87 assists per set is the highest ratio in the country. The Newport Beach native has 739 assists in 68 sets.

However, Pepperdine’s defense has been a weakness. The team is not in the National Collegiate Top 50 for digs per set nor blocks per set. This season, Pepperdine’s opponents are attacking the Waves at a 31.6% success rate. Meanwhile, the Trojans’ competitors have an attack rate of 27.1% against USC. 

The Trojans are 3-3 at Galen Center and 1-3 away, while the Waves are 6-2 at Firestone Fieldhouse.

“They’re going to have a few weapons on their side of things,” Nygaard said. “So we’re going to go in and just bring our style of volleyball. And I think we’ve got a couple of weapons too, so it’ll be a fun night.

USC will play Pepperdine at Firestone Fieldhouse on Thursday, followed by a match against the Waves at Galen Center Saturday. The first serve will be at 7 p.m. for both games.