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USC Sports

Lewis sends USC to season-ending loss in first round of the NCAA volleyball tournament

There were no tears in the locker room, no feelings of melancholy after the USC men’s volleyball team suffered a season-ending loss in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Instead, there was pride.

“For what we’ve accomplished this season,” coach Jeff Nygaard said. “What these young men next to me have done leadership down. How they’ve imprinted the team and the culture with hard work … everything necessary for us to get to where we were.”

The Trojans fell to Lewis University, a private Catholic and Lasallian school with an enrollment of 6,800 and located in Romeoville, Ill., 3-1 at Long Beach State on Tuesday night. The Flyers advance to the semifinals where they will face No. 1-seed Hawaii at 5 p.m. on Thursday.

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For USC, the loss was an anticlimactic end to an odds-defying season.

The Trojans had not reached the NCAA tournament since 2012, and posted an 8-20 record the year before. But this season was different. In the Trojans’ chemistry and their work ethic. Redshirt senior Jack Wyett said there used to be “sense that we had a hopeless season in front of us.”

This year, that feeling was gone.

“People are starting to believe that we actually have the talent to do something,” Wyett said before the tournament.

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USC had reason to be optimistic after the first set. Stifling blocks and several overpowering kills gave the Trojans an early narrow lead. As the set stretched on, USC extended its lead with a 7-3 run, bolstered by three kills from Wyett and an ace by Chris Hall, to take five-point lead. The Trojans won the first set 25-20.

In the second set, USC was hindered by errors, including three that propelled Lewis to turn an 8-8 tie into a four-point lead. USC scrambled with shots that bounced out while Lewis only grew more aggressive. The Flyers cruised to a 25-18 victory in the second set, tying the match.

Their energy only escalated.

Lewis claimed an immediate and convincing 10-4 lead that grew as the third set stretched on. USC narrowed the gap slightly, but not enough to overcome the early deficit.

Lewis won 25-19 to take a 2-1 set lead.

With their season on the line, the Trojans rose. The final game remained neck-in-neck, with USC recording its highest hitting percentage since the first set, at .242. The Trojans took a 22-20 lead with a block and a kill by Gianluca Grasso, who totaled a team-leading 16 kills. Lewis called a timeout.

Lewis rallied for a 5-1 run, and for the first time in the set, the Trojans had no answers. The Flyers’ blockers ended USC’s season by stuffing Wyett’s attempted spike.

USC committed 24 errors in the match, hitting .238.

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“We know we didn’t play our best match tonight,” senior Ryan Moss said.

The team huddled together when the match ended, then shook hands with the triumphant Flyers. The Trojans were silent, sullen, but did not seem discouraged.

They proved to themselves they are capable of greatness, a lesson that will last longer than any disappointment at the loss.

That feat, at least, is worth celebrating.

Pepperdine headed to the Final Four

It was not until the fifth set that the Pepperdine men’s volleyball team unleashed what it was capable of.

Maybe it was nerves or the size of the stage that left Pepperdine unable to break past Princeton until the final set Tuesday night, earning a 3-2 win to advance to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament at Long Beach State.

Redshirt senior David Wieczorek isn’t dwelling on what caused his team’s early struggles.

He took pride in the grit the team displayed.

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“We’re a pretty cohesive group, and we love each other,” said Wieczorek, who led the Waves with 18 kills. “So I think we’re able to turn it around in any second.”

Pepperdine will face No. 2-seeded and defending national champion Long Beach State at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Pepperdine hit .176 in the first set. But Wieczorek led the Waves with four kills early, helping the team take a first-set lead with a 25-23 win.

The Waves dropped the second set 25-19, but managed to contain the Tigers in the third set, winning 25-16. While there were service errors, shaky moments and out-of-bounds shots, the crowd remained raucous through the hours-long competition as it stretched late into the night.

With the chance to clinch the match in the fourth set — a game that featured nine ties and three lead changes — the Waves faltered. But it was that set that motivated senior Max Chamberlain and his teammates. At one point, the team fought back from a 19-15 deficit before ultimately dropping the set 25-22.

It was that fight, Chamberlain said, that fueled the Waves in the final set.

“That, and the fact that our season was on the line, at stake, doesn’t hurt either,” said Chamberlain, who earned nine block assists and 10 kills.

Coach David Hunt was so focused on Princeton, he has not watched film of powerhouse Long Beach State, the tournament’s host who is undefeated at home.

Long Beach State’s players studied Pepperdine, though. They sat in the bleachers in black sweatshirts early in the match, watching their future competition battle.

As the match wore on, the players had seen enough and left as Pepperdine fought for its fate awhile longer.

Once the match ended, Pepperdine’s players formed a quiet huddle on the court, then clapped their hands and nodded to the crowd.

In the opening statement of his postmatch news conference, Hunt thanked reporters for sticking around.

It was a humble celebration of an epic, five-set battle.

But perhaps that is more fitting. After all, the Waves’ season isn’t over yet.

Their grit made sure of that.

“We’re going to soak in this win for maybe 10 minutes,” Wieczorek said. “And then we’re onto Long Beach State.”

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blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_


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