Men’s volleyball locked in for Leap Day

The Trojans are  seeking an underdog victory this week against rival UCLA.

Freshman middle blocker Wesley Smith is third on the team in kills with 117. He also is tied for first on the team in sets played with 62, bringing much needed young depth and height to the Trojans’ roster. In conference play, Smith has the highest set percentage on the team with .638. (Henry Kofman / Daily Trojan)

After challenging back-to-back games against No. 1 Grand Canyon University, the No. 11 Trojans must learn from their losses to prepare for arguably the toughest match of their season. 

USC (10-6, 2-2 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) will have home-court advantage against No. 4 UCLA (12-4, 3-1), which might play a critical role in maintaining waves of momentum in the game. Its most recent road match against the GCU Antelopes (13-0, 4-0) was marked with numerous mid-game stoppages, both disrupting the flow of the game and the Trojans’ rhythm.

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Head Coach Jeff Nygaard pointed out offensive aggressiveness as one component of USC’s success on the horizon. 

“[I want] first kills,” Nygaard said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “It puts a lot of pressure on the other team when you put the ball away on your first opportunity.” 

On Thursday, Nygaard will face his alma mater, UCLA, where he was a four-year starter. During that span, he led the Bruins to the 1993 NCAA title and earned National Player of the Year twice in 1994 and 1995. 

UCLA is also coming off back-to-back road matches, which it split with Brigham Young University (10-6, 1-3). Its first game was devastated by the Cougars’ aces, but the Bruins rallied back in their second match with a barrage of swings from the outside.

The Trojans look to a few key players to guide them to a victory against the Bruins. The first is freshman middle blocker Wesley Smith, who has consistently recorded high blocking numbers. Most recently, Smith tallied six blocks and seven kills against the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-11 powerhouse will need to perform well both offensively and defensively to stop UCLA’s hitters, such as redshirt senior blocker Merrick McHenry — the nation’s top middle attacker in 2023.

Another critical impact player is junior libero Austin Stuard. He has been at the top of his defensive game, showing up in all areas of the court. Nygaard notes Stuard’s defense as an essential element against the Bruins.

“UCLA is going to bring heavy serves, so [it’s] a lot of service pressure,” Nygaard said. 

The Bruins will challenge Stuard — along with the rest of the serve-receiving lineup — to maintain precision under pressure. The Trojans will have to maximize each possession with solid passes for chances of deafening kills.

Sophomore outside hitter Dillon Klein will look to lead the Trojans offensively, as he did against Grand Canyon with 12 kills. 

Klein is focused on the minute details of the game and the battles within each set for the approaching game.

“It’s about honing our skills for a real good team. One extra point really goes far,” Klein said. “It’s the difference between 25-23 and 24-24.”

USC’s third set against the Antelopes was its closest set of its entire season, battling point for point until it ran out of steam and was defeated 30-28. The Trojans’ upcoming match may see a similar closeness. The team will have to maintain discipline, focus and execution to clinch a victory.

Fans can watch the thrilling rivalry go down Thursday at 7 p.m. at Galen Center.

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