Shying away from the big stage: After advancing to the NCAA Semifinal for the first time in 17 years, CSUN falls to Penn State 3-0
The Matadors best season in school history came to an end Thursday night at Maples Pavilion with Penn State sweeping CSUN (30-21, 30-23, 30-28) in the NCAA National Semifinal.
CSUN (23-10) made it to the four-team national tournament for the first time since 1993, while Penn State were in for their 12 consecutive season and the 25th time in schools history
“We looked like we hadn’t been here in 17 years and they looked like they were here every year,” Matador head coach Jeff Campbell said after the game of his team’s poor performance in the NCAA Semifinal match.
In a losing effort, All-American middle blocker Jacek Ratajczak led the Matadors with 15 kills, while senior outside hitter Mike Gaudino added seven. Senior outside hitter Theo Edwards and redshirt freshman John Baker finished with a combined 10 kills.
Senior opposite hitter William Price and redshirt sophomore Joe Sunder led the Nittany Lions with 18 kills apiece.
“We just knew what to expect from each one of their hitters,” Penn State All-American middle blocker Max Lipsitz said. “I feel like we were at the right place at the right time.”
Penn State took control of the match right from the opening serve jumping on the Matadors with a 13-9 advantage. CSUN got within two of the Nittany Lions at 18-16, after an attack error from Penn State. The Nittany Lions took control of the set from that point on with a 9-3 run giving them the set 30-21.
“You got to give Penn State credit on the serving… they served well and our passers did not handle the serves very well,” Campbell said.
Things did not get better for the Matadors in the second set, as the team fell behind 20-16. Down 25-18 the Matadors were unable to mount a comeback in route to losing the frame 30-23.
“They blocked pretty well and we had trouble passing and getting it tight to the net so that threw our offense out of rhythm,” McKniff said.
In the third set the Matadors once again fell behind and it seemed like it was going to be a run away for the Nittany Lions. After falling behind 9-2, CSUN began to chip away at the Penn State advantage getting within 14-10 after a kill by Gaudino. The Nittany Lions answered back with a 3-1 run and stretched the lead back to six at 16-11.
The Matadors stayed within striking distance of a comeback until finally making their move with the score 25-20. A service error from Penn State’s Joe Sunder followed by kill from Ratajczak forced a Nittany Lion timeout. Following the timeout Ratajczak had another kill to pull CSUN within 25-23 and five points later were in position to tie the score at 28 but a kill from Max Lipsitz sealed the victory in straight sets for the Nittany Lions.
“It was a tough loss tonight,” Edwards said. “It’s tough to see how good we did this year but I’m really proud to play for this team, this coach and to really represent Northridge. It’s tough to lose I really expected us to win and I honestly taught we were going to beat Penn State and that we were going to content for a national championship.”
For the Matadors the loss to Penn State in many ways was the culmination and the end to a great season and the careers of a quintet of seniors. Before the season Northridge was picked by the MPSF coaches to finish eight in conference.
“We had a lot of experience coming into the season… we had five seniors. I think we might have been a little underestimated going into the beginning of this year,” McKniff said.
After winning the preseason Santa Barbara Tournament CSUN began to move up the AVCA national poll. Northridge began the season winning their first three league games but could not break the schools best start at 6-0 losing to UCLA. Even with the loss the Matadors moved into the top spot in the rankings the following week replacing USC.
For the Matadors garnering the top spot marked the third consecutive season that CSUN sat a top the national rankings, a first in the school’s history. A split at the end of the season against BYU earned CSUN a second place finish in the MPSF, the best regular season finish in Matador history.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team and how far we got,” McKniff said. “We really worked hard all season. It’s rough that it ended like this but we fought the entire season and got this far… pretty proud of what we did.”
The loss to the Nittany Lions also brought an end to the careers of the best senior class in the school’s history. Edwards, Mckniff, Ratajczak, Gaudino along with Ali’i Keohohou helped CSUN to many firsts during their four years.
In 2007 the Matadors finished with an 18-15 record marking the last time that CSUN did not win 20 matches in a season. The three consecutive 20-win seasons is the first for Matador men’s volleyball.
In four seasons the seniors accumulated an 88-39 record, the best for any class in the school’s history and had the most wins in a season 24 in 2009. In 2008 the quintet lead CSUN to the most conference wins (17) in Matador history and this year were able to guide Northridge to its first NCAA Semifinal appearance in 17 years.
“I thought we had a good season… we accomplished lots of first and a lot of upset wins,” Ratajczak said. “Overall I think we had one of the best seasons ever at Northridge and that’s a good thing to look at.”