Before the season started the Matadors were picked to finish eight in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) and ranked ninth in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll. Five matches into the season, the Matadors are proving the preseason voters wrong as they continued their unblemished start Friday with an impressive (30-26, 30-23, 30-27) road sweep of No. 9 Long Beach State (2-3, 1-1 MPSF).
“We saw teams that we finished ahead of and crush down last season picked ahead of us and so it was motivational to us to go out there and show those teams why we are better than them and why we deserve to be ranked higher than them, ” junior opposite hitter Tanner Nua said.
No one would blame the rest of the players for feeling the way Nua, does especially since the Matadors return all but one starter (two-time All-American Eric Vance) from last season’s 24-7 team that finished the season ranked fourth in the nation and lost in the semifinals of the MPSF tournament.
The Matadors (5-0, 2-0 MPSF) began the season at the Santa Barbara invitational, which featured seven of eight MPSF teams. After a rocky first two sets in their opening match against the host Gaucho, the Matadors were able to ease to a four set win (31-29, 28-30, 30-17, 30-19). Northridge returned later that evening and manhandled Cal Baptist 3-1 (30-21, 30-32, 30-19, 30-19) to reach the finals for the second year in a row. In the final the next night against BYU (Jan. 8)the Matadors’ tired legs seemed to show during the match but eventually fought through fatigue to capture their second consecutive invitational with a hard fought four set win (30-25, 31-29, 30-32, 30-19).
Senior middle blocker Kevin McKniff was named tournament MVP while fellow middle blocker Jacek Ratajczak joined him on the All-Tournament Team.
“This is a different team right now,” Ratajczak said after winning the tournament. “We are playing much better defense and we are much more disciplined, we are not all over the place…We all know our roles and that helped us beat all these teams.”
The CSUN defense was out in full force against the 49ers as senior libero Ali’i Keohohou had some amazing digs that helped the team save some points. Keohohou is one of six returning starters that include the before mentioned Nua, Ratajczac and McKniff. Sophomore setter Matt Stork and senior outside hitter Mike Gaudino round out the rest of returning starters.
Stepping in for the departed, All-American at outside hitter has been senior Theo Edwards. The six-foot-seven Edwards has fit right in leading the Matadors in kills every match including a career tying 20 against UC Santa Barbara to open the season.
“Eric did a lot for us,” said Edwards. “That is a lot weight; those are some big shoes to fill, so I’m trying to do what I can to help out the team.”
Having moved up seven spots in the national polls thanks to their strong start the No. 2 Matadors now get ready for two big home matches against defending national champion UC Irvine on Wednesday and No. 10 UCLA on Friday.