LOS ANGELES -- In many ways it seems only fitting that these two teams should play for the national championship, especially after last week’s epic Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament semifinal in which second-ranked UC Irvine ralled from being down 0-2 to top-ranked USC to win in five sets.

At the time, it was the rubber match for 2012, since they’d split their regular-season meetings. UC Irvine went on to win the MPSF title by beating Stanford and capturing the league’s automatic bid to the four-team NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship. USC had to wait nervously to get the at-large bid.

In Thursday’s national semifinals, UC Irvine (25-5) beat Penn State 3-1 and USC (24-5) did the same against Lewis.

Sixth-year USC coach Bill Ferguson, perhaps still stinging from that last loss to the Anteaters, opened his Friday news conference with a salvo.

Interactive Bracket
Feinswog: Title match should be ‘a battle’
Feinswog: Irvine's Stork ready no matter what
Feinswog: Tillie's road less traveled
Feinswog: Lewis looking to make a statement
Feinswog: Penn State out to prove it belongs

“The pressure’s all on Irvine,” Ferguson said. “They were the team that was picked at the top of the league at the beginning of the year, they’ve got the golden child as the coach. We were supposed to get fifth in the league. We’re starting two freshmen. He’s got a guy who’s played in the world championships, he’s got an international guy, he’s got the deepest roster. For them not to win it would be pretty tough. It would probably be a bit of failure.”

All that seems a bit harsh, considering the ties that bind the two programs. Ferguson and Irvine assistant Mark Presho were club teammates as kids. Irvine head coach John Speraw, who is under consideration as the next U.S. Olympic coach and perhaps the replacement for the retired Al Scates at UCLA, played on the national team with USC assistant Jeff Nygaard.

“Those guys were at my wedding,” Ferguson said.

“Me personally, I would rather beat the people that I love more than the people that I hate,” said USC senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, the national player of the year.

Shandrick was recruited by Irvine. Ciarelli?

“That was the only school in the MPSF that did not recruit me,” Ciarelli said with a smile. “Speraw didn’t think he needed another 6-4 outside. Little did he know I would grow to 6-7.”
Of course, most of the top players in the country are recruited by the top programs.

“I was supposed to come here for a recruiting trip and then I switched it to Irvine and Fergie never rescheduled me,” Irvine freshman middle blocker Scott Kevorken said with a laugh.

“I think in general, men’s volleyball recruiting is a small pool of athletes and we all try to swim in that pool as much as we can,” Speraw said. “We cross paths with SC quite a bit.”

This rivalry goes deeper than just this season. These same teams played for the 2009 national championship in Provo, Utah. Irvine won that one, giving Speraw his second title in three years at the time. It also made Speraw only the third person to win a title as a head coach, assistant and player, accomplishing the latter two at UCLA. USC made it back to the 2011 semifinals, but lost to UC Santa Barbara, which in turn lost to Ohio State in the title match.

“I think we’ve developed a nice battle with USC over the years,” Speraw said. “Obviously it really kicked off in 2009 when we had those battles and that incredible championship match. Since then there’s been a lot of energy when we compete against this team and I think it goes both ways and I think it comes from healthy respect. I have a lot of respect for what Fergie’s done since he’s taken over. We went a number of years there where we didn’t lose to them at all. He’s done a great job of recruiting, both athletes nad staff. He’s got a great staff. They’ve put themselves in a position of winning national championships the past few years and we’ve had a couple of good battles along the way.”

This season, Irvine beat visiting USC 3-1 on January 27.

“We were terrible,” USC senior middle Steve Shandrick said. “We were bad.”

They played at USC on April 7 and the Trojans won 3-1.

“I thought we were good and they weren’t very good,” said USC outside hitter Ciarelli, the national player of the year.

“I think you saw it even out a little bit,” Ferguson said. “I think tomorrow’s going to be pretty cool for the folks in the seats, which I imagine will be aplenty.”

Ciarelli said he recalled that in 2009 when he heard that championship matches have a tendency to go either quickly in three or be a battle to five sets. He was right, because only four times since 1991 have titles been decided in four sets, the last in 2008.

Season Series
Jan. 27 UC Irvine 3, USC 1
April 7 USC 3, UC Irvine 1
April 26 UC Irvine 3, USC 2
May 5 TBD

“If the pattern continues either one of us crushes the other or it’s a hard-fought battle,” Ciarelli said. “I think with these two teams it’s going to be hard to see either one of us crushing the other one. So I’m seeing  a pretty exciting match ahead.”

Accordingly Speraw called it a chess match and said the next move was up to USC.

“That’s the interesting thing about playing teams repeatedly over the course of a season. Each match is very different,” Speraw said. “You learn a little bit, you try and do a chess move and they learn a little bit and they try and do a chess move. I think the interesting thing about this match is I’m sure we made some chess moves the last time and they know that, so what’s the next move? It’s probably their move. What are they gonna do and how are we going to adapt? That’s what I think this match is about. It’s a big challenge for us.”
Ferguson admitted, “We’re going to have to tweak a couple of things and I’m sure they will, too.”

USC is going for its fifth national title but first since 1990. In a league like the MPSF, where BYU was preseason No. 1 and Stanford was so close to winning the bid and UCLA was ranked No. 1 for a while during the season, Speraw wasn’t convinced that the two best teams are playing for the title. Not that it matters.

“No, if you look at the top five teams in the MPSF this year, I think the margins were really, really slim. I think the top five teams this year were exceptionally good volleyball teams and I think it was maybe a better top five than it’s been in years. And at the end of the day it came down to a play here or there in a fifth set. It maybe came down to a setter diving in on a ball and stuffing someone one-on-one for us to get here. It’s really slim margins like that.

“But you know, Coach Scates always told us you don’t have to be the best team. You just have to be the national champion. I think it’s hard for anybody to judge who the best team is, but we’re the ones with the opportunity to be the national champion and that’s the most important thing.”