UCI, USC meet for NCAA title

If they aren't the two best teams in the nation, they are, perhaps, the most undeniable.

UC Irvine (25-5), ranked No. 2 in the final national poll and seeded No. 1 in the four-team NCAA Championship, takes on No. 1-ranked USC (24-5), the No. 2 seed, in the NCAA title match Saturday at 7 p.m. at USC's Galen Center.

The Anteaters, who have won two of three matches with the Trojans this season, are aiming for the program's third national crown. UCI, in its fourth Final Four in seven seasons, won NCAA championships in 2007 and 2009. In 2009, UCI topped USC in five games in the final at BYU.

USC, in its 14th Final Four, is seeking the program's fifth NCAA crown, but its first since 1990.

Coach Bill Ferguson's Trojans defended their Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season title in 2012, despite being picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll. They ended the regular season on a 17-match winning streak and extended it to 18, before falling in five games in the MPSF Tournament semifinals to UCI on May 26.

UCI, picked to finish second in the preseason poll, quickly seized the top national ranking and exchanged it with BYU, UCLA and USC at various points in the regular season, before finishing in a three-way tie for second in the MPSF.

UCI lost at USC in four games on April 7, and topped the Trojans in four on Jan. 27 at the Bren Events Center.

It has become a hearty rivalry, particularly for senior All-Americans Carson Clark (UCI) and Tony Ciarelli (USC), who were freshman starters in the 2009 NCAA final.

"This will be like the 15th time we've played [the Anteaters], which is pretty unreal," Ciarelli said after his team's four-game semifinal win over Lewis on Thursday. "It seems like we know each other pretty well. We don't know hat they are going to do, but we know what they like to do.

"We know how to beat them and they know how to beat us, so I think it's going to be two really, really good teams up against each other, just giving it their all. I'm really, really excited. It's going to be good volleyball, I think."

The two coaches spoke about the showdown on Friday, in predictably different ways.

"The pressure is on Irvine," said sixth-year USC Coach Bill Ferguson. They were the team that was picked [near] 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 league. We're starting two freshmen. They've got a guy [Clark] who has played in the World Championships. They have an international guy [Kevin Tillie from France] and the deepest roster. For them not to win, it would be pretty tough. It would probably be a bit of a failure."

UCI Coach John Speraw, in his 10th season, said the USC rivalry intensified, beginning in 2009.

"Since [2009], there has been a lot of energy when we've competed against this team," Speraw said. "And I think it goes both ways. I think it comes from a healthy respect for what [Ferguson] has done with the program since he's taken over. There were a number of years there where we never lost to them at all. But he has done a great job of recruiting both athletes and staff and they've put themselves in a position where they are capable of winning national championships the last few years and we've had some good battles along the way."

•Ciarelli, the MPSF and national player of the year, has ties to UCI, as his mother, Cammy is a former UCI women's volleyball assistant coach. His cousin, Katelyn is an assistant track and field coach at the school and he played for Speraw with the Newport Beach-based Balboa Bay Volleyball Club.

When asked about the feeling of accepting the Player of the Year trophy at the Final Four banquet on Wednesday, Ciarelli said it felt great, but, hopefully, not as great as Saturday might feel.

On Friday, Ciarelli said: "Getting to the Final Four is a thrice-in-a-lifetime thing. Winning the national championship would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

•USC's lineup might include contributions from a pair of former Back Bay standouts. Junior reserve Jeff Carlson, a Corona del Mar High product, came off the bench to contribute against Lewis and he played a notable role for the Trojans in the first USC meeting.

And with USC sophomore libero Henry Cassiday dealing with a hip injury that sidelined him in Thursday's semifinal, sophomore J.B. Green, out of Newport Harbor High, could get a second straight start.

"[Cassiday] could have gone Thursday," Ferguson said. "We'll prep him [for Saturday] and if he can play, he can play. If not, we're fine with J.B. Green. He did a fantastic job [against Lewis] and he would start on any other team in the league."

Green had seven digs and was errorless while receiving 36 serves against Lewis.

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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