Top-ranked Southern California will face a familiar foe in second-ranked UC Irvine when the two teams meet in the NCAA men's volleyball national championship final on Saturday night.
The teams have squared off three times this season, most recently in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, where the Anteaters snapped the Trojans' 18-match winning streak in the semifinals,
UC Irvine went on to beat Stanford for the tournament title, earning the automatic bid to the NCAA championship. Southern California - which claimed the MPSF regular season title - had to wait for an at-large bid.
Anteaters coach John Speraw likened the rivalry - and its culmination in the national title game - to a chess match.
"That's the thing about playing teams repeatedly over the course of a season. You learn a little bit and try and do a chess move, and they learn a bit and try and do a chess move. The interesting thing about this match is I'm sure we've made some chess moves in the last one and they know that, and what's the next move? It's probably their move," Speraw said. "What are they going to do and how are they going to adapt and are they going to anticipate? That's what this match is about.
The two teams solidified their spot in the national championship match with semifinal victories at USC's Galen Center on Thursday night. The Anteaters (25-5) defeated Penn State 3-1 (18-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-19) before USC downed tenacious Lewis 3-1 (25-18, 25-12, 18-25, 27-5).
Irvine (25-2) is 2-1 overall against the Trojans (24-5) this season.
"We know how to beat them, they know how to beat us," USC outside hitter Tony Ciarelli told reporters following the semis. "I think it's going to be two really, really good teams going up against each other just giving it their all. I'm real excited and I think it's going to be really good volleyball."
Southern California has won four national championships, its last in 1990.
The Trojans have made it to the NCAA championship tournament three of the last four years. Last season they fell to UC Santa Barbara in the semifinals and in 2009, Irvine bested them in the final.
"There's definitely a rivalry here. I can't even count the number of times we've played this team," Trojan middle blocker Steven Shandrick said Friday. "We know them really well. It brings us back to `09 in the national championship. It brings us back full circle."
Ciarelli, the national player of the year, had 18 kills and 10 digs in second-seeded USC's semifinal victory over third-seeded Lewis, a Catholic college located in Romeoville, Ill. The national player of the year, Ciarelli hit .412 for the match.
Geoff Powell had 17 kills and nine digs for the Flyers, who got an automatic bid to the semis with a five-set victory over defending NCAA champion Ohio State 3-2 in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
Junior Kevin Tillie had 21 kills and eight digs in Irvine's victory over fourth-seeded Penn State. The Anteaters trailed in the final set before Tillie's kill put them in front 19-18. Tillie, who hit .500, closed it out with a spike for match point.
"We were fired up at the beginning. We made some errors in the first set and looked at each other, and after the start of the second we were ready to go," Tillie said. "We got fired up and played our game a little more."
Joe Sunder had 15 kills and eight digs for the fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (23-6), the 2008 champions.
Irvine lost to Penn State in the 2006 semis before beating the Nittany Lions the next year for the school's first national title. Irvine also won in 2009.