Men’s volleyball’s unforgettable Saturday night

The Trojans’ upset over BYU was an instant classic and USC’s biggest win this year.

The Trojans ended a four-game losing streak Saturday to even their record at 12-12. USC faces No. 7 Stanford next in its final regular season series. (Henry Kofman / Daily Trojan)

No. 13 USC men’s volleyball had little reason to be confident heading into Saturday night’s matchup against No. 6 BYU. The night before, the same Cougars shook off a first-set misstep to dominate the Trojans, with each set looking worse until a 25-13 beatdown in the fourth set sent the Trojans home looking for answers. 

But a pregame speech by redshirt junior outside hitter Jackson Reed changed everything. 

“All of a sudden out of nowhere, [Reed] is like, ‘This is dogs-off-the-leash mentality, let’s go!’” said USC Head Coach Jeff Nygaard in a postgame interview with the Daily Trojan. “From the least likely guy to just throw that out there — but you could tell he wanted this one. He almost willed this team to victory today.”

Daily headlines, sent straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up with the latest at and around USC.

The path to victory was a wild one, and it started with a major bump in the road. Coming into the match, the Cougars had a ton of momentum from the previous night’s victory, and they used an early lead to outpace USC 25-20. 

The second set appeared doomed to be headed for the same fate. The Trojans fell into an early 8-2 hole. At that point, Nygaard inserted redshirt freshman outside hitter Noah Roberts into the match, hoping to give his team the spark. 

It turned into the ultimate dog-off-the-leash moment for the Trojans. Roberts immediately played like a rabid pitbull that Nygaard had let onto the court, converting all six of his kill attempts for a perfect 1.000 hitting percentage in the set to lead the Trojans to a dramatic, come-from-behind 27-25 second set victory. 

The Trojans tried to carry the momentum into the third set and built a big lead. But the Cougars’ veteran experience willed them back into the game and this time around, USC was the victim of a dramatic comeback, as BYU dealt a 28-26 set loss in another drama-filled set. 

An unfortunate trend for the Trojans this season has been an inability to rebound from crucial close-set losses, especially in the third set. But on Senior Night, they had something extra to play for and there was no way they were going to go down easily. 

“I think there was a sense of urgency about today’s game, this one was for the seniors,” Nygaard said. “Having the drive to get the win in their final [home] conference match cleaned up so many things for us.” 

The fourth set was another fiercely close battle. USC got out to an early lead again behind more strong hitting from Roberts and senior middle blocker Kyle Paulson, but BYU stayed level-headed and fought back. As the set passed 25 points without a winner again, the Trojans had their backs against the wall: A loss in this set would mean the end of the game. 

But clutch play from Paulson put the Trojans over the edge and gave them a 29-27 victory, knotting the match up at 2-2 and sending the game into a decisive fifth set. 

A game this chaotic was bound to have a chaotic finish. The fifth set was nothing short of a stage play. BYU jumped out to a 10-6 lead, which is hard to come back from in a race to 15. But the Trojans clawed back into the game to knot the score at 12 apiece. And then, it looked like the Cougars had secured the victory anyway until a clutch challenge by Nygaard reversed what would have been the game-winning point to get the Trojans back in the game. 

In the end, it was the most unlikely of heroes that secured the victory for the Trojans. Junior middle blocker Markus Olsson was only in the lineup due to an injury to USC’s star freshman middle blocker, Wesley Smith. But in the biggest moment of the game, it was Olsson, the Trojans’ least-proven player, who had what it took to get the clutch the team needed. Olsson’s block gave USC a 17-16 lead, and then his kill on the next play was the game-winner for the Trojans, who walked away with an 18-16 victory in the set, a 3-2 victory in the game and a senior night upset that nobody will forget. 

Nygaard credited Olsson’s readiness for the moment to his work ethic, saying the game-winning kill was just another play he’d practiced countless times. 

“We’ve been in the gym with [Olsson] 24/7 for the last three years — he’s a relentless machine of effort,” Nygaard said. “What you saw out here is what you see up there every day in practice. No different, and that is a huge compliment to that guy. Just a relentless effort machine and everyone on the team respects it. They just know that Markus is going to give 100%.”

Olsson yielded career highs of nine kills, six blocks and three digs. He credited his teammates for helping him stay level-headed in those big moments.  

“The teammates calm you down because you’re doing this together,” Olsson said in a postgame press conference. 

Olsson’s winning moment was only the finale of a game filled with some of the most dramatic volleyball ever played at Galen Center. 

At the heart of it all was the relentless Roberts. It seemed as though every time he touched the ball it was a kill for the Trojans, and he had the numbers to show for it. 

Roberts hit a mind-boggling .593 and had a career-high 19 kills to lead the team. His nine digs and four blocks were also his career-best. 

It would seem as though one of the best hitting nights anyone at Galen Center had ever witnessed would be a complete shock to everyone, coming from a guy who didn’t even start the game. 

But it didn’t surprise anyone in a Trojan uniform. 

“That’s what we know Noah is capable of doing,” Nygaard said. “We’ve been waiting for that from him for a long period of time. He’s had to put in a ton of work off the court to be able to go out there, and tonight was the perfect night for him to unleash, turn it loose, and play a really great game. And we needed it.” 

It was cathartic for his teammates to witness as well.

“Last year, he had a rough year being out, and I think this year, he’s coming back on a revenge tour,” Paulson said. “It’s great to see him playing because he has one of the highest potentials I’ve ever seen in a player.”

When the dust settled, the game truly had everything: an iconic pregame speech, the breakout game for a future star, an unlikely hero stepping up in the clutch, dramatic coach challenges, four sets going into extra points and the sweetest possible ending for the Trojans — a dramatic upset that set their home fans into a frenzy on a night they were celebrating their seniors. 

“These are the games we live for,” Roberts said. 

The Trojans will attempt to turn the iconic moment into momentum when they visit Stanford for two games on Friday and Saturday. 

© University of Southern California/Daily Trojan. All rights reserved.