Volleyball loses in second round
After toppling LSU to open tournament, Toreros’ season ends at hands of host Trojans
Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista
In many ways, the 2017 season is going to be viewed as a successful one for the University of San Diego volleyball team. The Toreros ran off 15 straight wins over the last two months of the campaign, finishing with a record of 25-5 and reaching as high as ninth in national rankings.
Their win over Pepperdine two weeks ago clinched the program’s first West Coast Conference title since 2013 and further cemented their standing as one of the top collegiate volleyball programs on the West Coast.
There’s just one problem: all of those records and results are already final. Once again, the NCAA postseason tournament will continue on without USD still in the hunt, as the Toreros lost in the second round to Pac-12 powerhouse University of Southern California.
As a result, in the one way for those around the program that matters most — a rise to true national prominence — the season can only be seen as another in a succession of letdowns at the finish line.
USD entered the opening rounds of the postseason, played at USC’s Galen Center last weekend, with some serious hardware in tow. In addition to their conference crown, the team swept the WCC’s major awards for the season.
Senior setter Kristen Gengenbacher took home Player of the Year honors. First-year outside hitter Roxie Wiblin was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. Senior outside hitter Jayden Kennedy (First Team), junior middle back Addie Picha (First Team), and redshirt junior middle back Kaity Edwards (Honorable Mention) were all named to the all-conference team. Even head coach Jennifer Petrie got in on the act, taking home her fifth career Coach of the Year award.
Gengenbacher acknowledged the pride she feels not only on a personal level, but for her teammates and coaches as well.
“Personally, it’s such an honor to have received WCC Player of the Year,” Gengenbacher said. “I can honestly say that I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and coaches though. To see several other teammates and Coach Petrie be recognized as well, it makes me so happy and excited for all of them, too. It’s a testament to the whole program, that we were able to come together and prove a lot of people wrong even after losing three really good seniors last year.”
USD’s conference title also clinched the program an automatic bid to the NCAA postseason tournament. Their opponent in the first round: the Tigers of Louisiana State University. With memories of last year’s first-round exit at the hands of Baylor University still fresh in the minds of many on the team, USD battled through a back-and-forth match to win, 3-1. After splitting the first two sets, the Toreros rode a clutch 8-0 run to win the always-crucial third set. That clutch performance allowed USD to ease through a fourth-set victory, 25-21, to claim the match.
Gengenbacher noted that the Toreros’ ability to look past last year’s loss and win a close match with LSU was a good example of the tenacity shown by the team all season.
“When we’re on a roll, we know we just have to keep that energy and positivity going because changes in momentum are so easy in volleyball,” Gengenbacher said. “It looked grim at times and we fought from behind a lot of the time, and we were ultimately able to come out with a win. It was awesome to be able to get rid of some of those ghosts from last year.”
Three Toreros had double-digit kills on the night, with Kennedy (17 kills), Picha (13 kills), and junior outside hitter Lauren Fuller (15 kills) leading the way at the net. On defense, USD was carried by senior libero Lizzy Tardieu’s 21 digs.
The victory, and host USC’s win later Friday night over Central Arkansas, put the Toreros up against the 10th-seeded Trojans in the second round on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, as has long been the story for USD against Pac-12 opponents, the Toreros were unable to come away with a win, falling in five tightly contested sets to USC, 3-2. All five sets were decided by four points or fewer.
Kennedy (17 kills) again led the Toreros at the net on offense, while Picha finished one off her career high with 10 blocks. Both sides of the ball seemed to work through Gengenbacher, who finished the night with 51 assists and a match-high 19 digs.
Unfortunately, the final score was not as promising for the Toreros as their individual contributions might have been. For the fifth year in a row, USD failed to advance past the second round, and the program remains in search of its elusive first trip to the Elite Eight.
The day after the loss, Gengenbacher admitted that there was some disappointment over not being able to take that next step toward national title contention.
“Days like this are always really hard,” Gengenbacher said. “It almost feels like someone close to you died. Everything’s just sort of sad and dark.”
However, she was quick to emphasize that, while the end result was disheartening, the Toreros’ overall body of work during the 2017 season is something to be proud of.
“Our coaches were saying that this has been one of the most fun and courageous teams they’ve had the privilege of coaching,” Gengenbacher said. “We fought all the way to the end and really changed the culture of USD volleyball. I’m so proud of this team. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of, and I feel blessed to have been a part of this experience.”
As highlighted by the team’s early-season losses to national heavyweights in UCLA and Texas, and illuminated more fully in their early-round playoff exit last weekend, the program remains a few short steps behind the national leaders in the sport. However, with three prep standouts already signed to play for the Toreros next year, including Canadian National Junior Team member and Ontario native Laura Madill, USD is certainly doing everything it can to join the company of the nation’s elite programs.
As a point of reference, Gengenbacher pointed to the progress the team has made on the national stage even since the start of the 2017 campaign.
“Things really could’ve gone either way against USC, whereas the UCLA match was almost embarrassing,” Gengenbacher said. “It’s tough to always end on such a sad note, but it’s also more motivation for the next class and next generation of players. I think we learned a lot over the course of the year and that the program is only going up from here.”
For now, though, even after one of the strongest seasons in school history, the Toreros will spend another December at home as the national championship is decided without them.