Men’s volleyball has a chance

first_imgWhen I covered the men’s volleyball team last spring, I vividly remember thinking at the end of the season, “This team is going to be great next year.” Early on, the Trojans certainly were; they started the season 7–0 and looked to be poised to take the top spot in the national poll.Though the team has nonetheless performed well since then, the Trojans finished closer to the middle of the pack regionally and nationally at the end of the regular season. As the Trojans head into their conference tournament, it’s now or never for the team to reach its full potential and go from good to great.The Trojans snuck into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference tournament last year. At 14-10 in conference play, the Trojans finished just ahead of 13-11 Hawai’i for the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament. But living on the edge proved to be too dangerous for the Trojans as they were quickly dispatched in the first round by top-seeded BYU in three sets.The team lost a fair amount of players from that squad. Opposites Tanner Jansen and Maddison McKibbin were regular contributors; Henry Cassiday was a four-year starter at libero.But more important was what was coming back. Big men Chris Lischke, Robert Feathers and Andy Benesh would be forces up the middle for the Trojans. Lucas Yoder, the MPSF Freshman of the Year, would return as an outside hitter. Libero Brooks Varni had waited his turn patiently behind Cassiday, and he would fill in nicely as the defensive leader.Most importantly, though, the Trojans would bring back a true superstar for his senior season. Micah Christenson, the setter for the U.S. men’s national team, would return to the Galen Center for his final season and lead the Trojan offense one more time.On top of a great roster, the team had a very experienced coaching staff. Along with four assistant coaches who had been with the Trojans for at least three years, the team was lead by Bill Ferguson, who was going into his ninth year at the helm of the program.Ferguson has accomplished almost everything as a coach. He’s won the regular season conference, he’s won the conference tournament, he’s been named coach of the year in the conference, and he’s advanced to the national championship match twice. The only thing missing from his resume is that legacy-defining championship. He was three sets away one year and one set away another, but he still hasn’t gotten that monkey off his back. That, however, is representative of the nature of small sample sizes,  as well as the competitiveness of the sport, more so than anything about Ferguson’s attributes as a coach. It’s impossible to put a team in that position multiple times without being an elite-level coach, but very possible for thin margins and lucky bounces to be the difference between a banner.With that being said, I felt like this was going to be the year. The talent was there, and the staff had worked together as a team during the entire career of everyone on the roster at that time. This was finally going to be the one where they did it.A look at the team’s national ranking leads to some skepticism to this plane — the team is ranked    No. 8 in the country by the American Volleyball Coaches Association national poll. But that is indicative of the teams inconsistent execution rather than its great potential. Similarly, the Trojans sit at No. 4 in the MPSF standings not because they couldn’t beat the three teams ahead of them, but because they couldn’t do so twice. This year’s poll is topped by UC Irvine followed by BYU and Pepperdine — just kidding, Hawai’i is at number two — all of whom the Trojans have split with. Similar inconsistencies with lesser conference rivals like UCLA and UCSB explain why USC still sits toward the middle rather than the top.Finishing in the top four is nonetheless crucial. The difference between fourth and fifth place is critical in the standings, much more so than any other pair of positions besides eighth and ninth place. Fourth place assures that the first round of the quarterfinal match is at home rather than on the road. The semifinal and final round are played the following weekend all at the home court of the first seed.Sitting in that crucial fifth place spot is BYU, the team that dominated USC at home last season in the tournament. The Cougars, much like the Trojans or any team, really, play much better at home than on the road. The Trojans were swept during a two-match regular season trip to BYU last season, and Ferguson says the fan base for the Cougars really comes out hard to support the team.If the Trojans can avenge last season’s elimination against BYU this weekend, the road to the NCAA tournament does not get any easier.The Trojans would need to upset top seed UC Irvine at home and at the quarterfinals for even a shot at an at-large bid to the national championship tournament. Even that likely won’t be enough. There are only two at large bids for the tournament in the entire country, and the Trojans likely need to win the MPSF tournament to claim the conference’s automatic qualifier.It’s not impossible, but the odds would certainly stack against the Trojans chances of doing so. The Trojans beat UC Irvine the first time through MPSF play in late January, but were defeated the second time through this past March.There’s a sense of urgency to this year’s playoffs. The “this is going to be the year” mentality is just a more positive way of saying that it feels like now or never.  The preceding year, the Trojans didn’t even make the MPSF tournament. When Christenson graduates, the team will take on a totally new dynamic and will probably have to go into             re-building mode.The 2012 season was Christenson’s freshman year, and the Trojans were defeated in the national championship game by UC Irvine. There’s no doubt that he and the rest of the seniors remember that game, so any rematch in the                      post-season with the Anteaters is sure to bring out the best in the Trojans. It’s a brand new season, and the Trojans will have to play with the same fire and intensity that they did earlier this year when it was still a brand new season.Today, an appearance in the NCAA tournament would feel like an accomplishment. But if you asked back in January, before it all started, anything short of a national championship would have been a disappointment. I don’t think it is likely, and I think it will take the program some time to even get back into this position after this season. But I do think a national championship is still a legitimate possibility for this team. Besides being any other USC team, the players and coaches of the men’s team have been particularly fun to cover and have shown great class over the past two seasons, so I am really rooting for them to pull it off.The team worked very hard to earn that home court advantage in the quarterfinals this weekend.  Let’s do our part and come out in droves for our Trojans this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Galen Center.Luke Holthouse is a sophomore majoring in policy, planning and development, and broadcast and digital journalism. His column “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesdays.last_img read more