Well...it all comes down to this. After a wild ride with 18 consecutive games won, 4 All-Americans, and national Player of the Year honors, the USC Trojans are now 3 sets away from winning the school's 95th overall National Championship, and the program's first title since 1990. Tonight at 7 PM, they will face the UC Irvine Anteaters for the fourth time this season, and the Galen Center is sure to be packed with SC fans wanting to see the host team bring home the gold and UCI fans wanting to see their top athletic team come home with its third national title in five years.
On Thursday, both teams won their semifinal matchups in four sets. USC faced the MIVA champion Lewis Flyers, and in the first two sets they dominated all aspects of the match and won the first by seven points and the second by thirteen. But in the third set, the Flyers came back with a dominant showing of their own, building a lead as large as 9 points and winning the set handily. Finally in the fourth set, Lewis got off to another solid start, but USC came back to tie the game at 20-20. The final points of the match were neck-and-neck, and in extra points, the Trojans took the victory 25-18, 25-12, 18-25, 27-25. Tony Ciarelli was the man of the match with 18 kills and 10 digs for SC.
Preview of tonight's final after the jump.
In the three previous matches between UCI and USC this season, the Anteaters have come away victorious in two of them. Here are the results of those games:
January 27 @ UCI: Anteaters win 25-17, 23-25, 25-21, 25-16
April 7 @ USC: Trojans win 25-22, 25-19, 27-29, 25-18
April 26 MPSF semifinals: Anteaters win 24-26, 23-25, 25-16, 28-26, 15-9.
USC (24-5) enters the match with four AVCA All-Americans. Senior middle blocker Steven Shandrick, sophomore libero Henry Cassiday, and freshman setter Micah Christenson were named to the second team, with Christenson named the 2012 Newcomer of the Year. Tony Ciarelli was selected for the first team, and last week, AVCA named him the 2012 National Player of the Year! Ciarelli becomes the seventh Trojan to be named the top player in college volleyball and the second Trojan in a row to do so, following Murphy Troy in 2011. In his 4 years at USC, Ciarelli has made 1,623 kills, 671 digs, and a school record 166 aces.
The Anteaters (25-5) will bring with them two first-team All-Americans: senior Carson Clark and junior Kevin Tillie. In UCI's semifinal victory against Penn State on Thursday, Tillie was on fire, setting down 21 kills and eight digs. Their coach, John Speraw, is a former UCLA volleyball player that is looking to bring Irvine its third title since 2007. This match may be his last as coach of UCI, however, as the Bruins are campaigning hard to bring him back to Westwood to replace their retiring legendary coach Al Scates. Ironically, it was Speraw that coached opposite Scates in the last game of his career, as UCI defeated UCLA in the MPSF quarterfinal and ending the career of the most decorated coach in college volleyball.
Ciarelli and the rest of the seniors from both teams will come into tonight's game with experience playing each other in the big game. USC and UCI faced off in the 2009 final at BYU, where the Anteaters won in a five-set thriller. A large crowd is expected to fill the Galen Center tonight. Pat Haden has bought 1,000 tickets for the game so students can get in for free. UCI, which always has a strong core group of volleyball fans following the team, will be bringing several buses of students and alumni to the game as well to try to take away the Trojans' home court advantage. Despite the immense challenge presented by the Anteaters, USC coach Bill Ferguson is not fazed:
“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.”
The match will be aired on ESPNU, ESPN3.com, and NCAA.com at 7 PM PT. This is our game thread. Enjoy.