LOS ANGELES -– USC coach Bill Ferguson walked across his home court, perhaps a bit numb after what he had just seen. His top-ranked Trojans had survived a four-set victory against upstart Lewis to advance to the title match of the NCAA NC Men’s Volleyball Championship.
Ferguson shook his head and smiled just before shaking hands with the Lewis team that his Trojans had escaped 25-18, 25-12, 18-25, 27-25.
“I’m already fat,” he cracked. “I don’t need to go bald.”
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Luckily for him, he still has a full head of thick, dark hair and a chance to finally break through and win it all after making it to the national semifinals for the third time in four years. In 2009, USC lost to Irvine in the championship match. Last year, the Trojans lost in the semifinals to UC Santa Barbara.
And now they get to play the same team that ousted them from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals a week earlier. Again, Saturday’s match will be in the Galen Center on the campus of USC and if Thursday night’s crowd of 4,375 is any indication, Saturday night should be something else. It was the second-largest gathering in the building for men’s volleyball this season, surpassed only by the MPSF regular-season matchup won by USC 3-1 against Irvine on April 7.
“The crowd sure seemed to energize us at the end when it seemed like we were a bit tired,” Ferguson said. “We spent a lot of energy in the initial sprint in the first two sets.”
Certainly it seemed at that point the rout was on, but Lewis was ridiculously scrappy and refused to go quietly as it made it this far for the first time in eight years. Lewis coach Dan Friend was asked to assess Saturday’s title match.
“I think it’s going to be a battle, for sure,” Friend said. “Well, if you want me to pick a team it’s tough. I told Bill good luck. I really hope he can win. He’s been here three times and it would really awesome for them to win.”
“At the same time, Irvine’s tough. If you’re going to make me pick a team, I’m going to go with Irvine. But I want USC to win. It’s tough.”
At this point, no one should expect anything but tough. Irvine got past Penn State 18-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-19, in the first semifinal.
“This will be like the 15th time we’ve played them,” said USC senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli who had a match-leading 18 kills against Lewis while hitting .412. “It’s pretty unreal. And it’s the [third] time this year. So it seems like we know each other pretty well. We don’t know what they’re going to do but we know what they like to do. They know what we like to do. So I think it’s going to be real exciting, because it’s going to be two teams that know each other and know how to beat each other, because they beat us twice and we beat them once.
“We know how to beat them, they know how to beat us. I think it’s going to be two really, really good teams going up against each other just giving it their all. I’m real excited and I think it’s going to be really good volleyball.”
USC (24-5) had won 18 matches in a row before losing to Irvine. Senior middle blocker Steve Shandrick, who had 15 kills in 20 attempts with one error, hit a whopping .700 and had three block assists against Lewis, said in the last set the Trojans got back to the mindset they had during their winning streak.
After winning the first two sets easily, “we made a lot of errors on our side,” Shandrick said. “I don’t think we made a lot of smart plays when the ball went out of system. I think we could have done a better job with that. Also the energy was a factor and we didn’t bring it so we had to make some changes. All in all we got off to a better start in the fourth and we were more fired up and we were feeding off that energy from the crowd.”
USC made two personnel adjustments, bringing in junior Maddison McKibben in on two occasions in the last two sets, the first as an outside and then as an opposite to get better blocking on the right side. Ferguson also used junior Jeff Carlson as a server and while he didn’t get any aces, seemed to give his team a spark, including serving tough late in the match when it was delayed after a line judge went down with an injury.
Ciarelli said the Trojans made it a point to pull together after every play and pump each other up the suggestion of USC assistant coach Jeff Nygaard, the former Olympian.
“After every point we were in the middle, talking and kind of re-setting,” Ciarelli said, “and I think we need to get back to that a little more to stay more consistent.”
The most consistent in that fourth set was Shandrick, who had five kills in seven attempts despite having his only hitting error of the match.
“We were loving it and having a good time and getting back to our roots, not really thinking about the semifinal game we were in or the implications of whether we were to win or lose,” Shandrick said. “We just played volleyball and had a blast doing it and thinking less and playing more is why we won that fourth game.”