Volleyball seeking redemption at home
The men’s volleyball team begins a four-game homestand with a rematch against No. 11 Cal State University Northridge Wednesday at the Galen Center.USC (2-8, 2-6) visited Northridge (7-4, 2-4) Jan. 15, for its 2016 MPSF home opener. USC was ranked No. 13 in the nation and CSU Northridge No. 14. The Matadors upset the Trojans in four sets (25-21, 23-25, 25-22, 25-19).Senior outside hitter and captain Alex Slaught led the team with 15 kills, but Northridge junior outside hitter Jakub Ciesla bettered him with a season high of 22. His teammate, redshirt freshman middle blocker Eric Chance, added 12 kills in 14 attempts in his debut performance against the Trojans.This time around as underdogs, USC brings a new lineup to the table.Sophomore setter Gert Lisha and junior middle blocker Andy Benesh, with hand and back injuries respectively, both missed the first match against the Matadors. Tonight, they will be on the court together for only the fourth time this season. The team is still adjusting to the new play style.“It’s a change,” head coach Jeff Nygaard said. “Jack [Yoder] and Gert are different in how they set. Gert likes pumping the middle and spraying the ball around. Each has their own style of play.”Lisha has started each of the last two matches at setter, and Nygaard is impressed with his quick improvement.“What I like most is that he went from Irvine, where he was a little undisciplined at the net, to San Diego, where he had five blocks against them. He was staying a little bit more disciplined and got rewarded for it,” Nygaard said.In the match against San Diego, Lisha was the team leader in blocks — a title that often goes to Benesh. Since his return from injury, though, Benesh has not put up the same dominant numbers at the net that were common last year in a season that earned him All-American Honorable Mention.“With Andy, it’s gonna just be getting [back to his] comfort level,” Nygaard said. “Having a whole month off, missing that training, takes its toll.”With the team getting healthy, Nygaard is excited for progress.“We’re running a better offense, currently,” Nygaard said. “Our outsides actually played really great against Northridge, [and] they’re improving daily.”Look for Slaught to have another big game and to be joined by breakout sophomore opposite Jon Rivera. Since MPSF play began, Rivera has passed Slaught as USC’s kills leader with 108 on the year.While Nygaard is impressed with the team’s growth, he expects more concentration and better communication.“We have got four important matches — all of them winnable — within a week, so it’s gonna be demanding,” Nygaard said. “Now is the time to be extremely mindful and extremely mature. Now is the time to really buckle down.”This four-game homestand marks the halfway point of MPSF play, so if the Trojans are going to get in position to make a run late in the season, they are going to have to get some wins this week.To expedite the team’s progress, Nygaard has made midseason adjustments to his communication with the team.“I’m recognizing that my method of communication for them has not been as received as I once thought,” Nygaard said. “It hasn’t been internalized or understood to the depths that I try to communicate, which is on me to recognize earlier and make sure that I’m streamlining things so that it’s more palatable to them so we can move forward. There has to be a bridging of the gap [between us], and once we get that, I think communication will get better.”While the team is still working out kinks in its communication on and off the court, Nygaard wants the team to play mindful and consistent ball rather than let emotions run the game.“Northridge consistently passes below the league average, so we need to be able to serve the ball with pace,” Nygaard said. “And that’s a mental trick to be able to do that consistently as opposed to just [hitting] the crap out of the ball.”Nygaard expects Northridge to be extremely physical, but USC has seen similar teams since their last matchup. The key for a USC victory will be their awareness on the court.“If we could be more in the moment, way more mindful of what we’re supposed to be doing, then we’re going to make monster gains moving forward,” Nygaard said.