It is rare when you get a championship-type match-up in the semifinals of a competition, but today’s match of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament between the No. 2 Matadors men’s volleyball team and No. 3 Pepperdine at the Bren Events Center in Irvine will have that type of feel to it.
‘With Pepperdine being our closest rival, everyone on the team gets extra hyped when we go up against them,’ said junior outside hitter Mike Gaudino, who had his best match of the season against the Waves on April 1 with a 24-kill performance. ‘My brother (Greg) played there (in 2007), so I try to send a message.’
The intense rivalry should not be confused with hatred among the squads by any means.
‘I (have) friends on the (Pepperdine squad) that I played with for a long time. It’s always fun to play against them, so I try to bring my best effort.’
The Waves come into the match as the tournament’s second seed after losing four matches in conference while CSUN suffered six setbacks, which earned them the third seed. The Matadors and Waves faced off twice during the regular season, splitting the games. Each team won on the other’s court.
The match features two of the top players in the nation: CSUN senior All American Eric Vance and Wave Paul Carroll. Vance, an MPSF First Team-pick this season, led the nation in aces, was third in kills and kills per set (5.50). Carroll, who was named MPSF Player of the Year last week, was first in kills and kills per set (6.22).’ ‘ ‘
‘The teams that ended up winning the two (regular-season) match-ups were the ones that won the first two sets,’ sophomore opposite hitter Tanner Nua said. ‘I feel like it might come down to that again. It’s going to be a close game.
‘We are pretty evenly matched. There is two really great players (Vance and Carroll) and a surrounding cast that can help them. So we need to go out there fired up on our side, shut the rest of their team down and we will come out with the win.’
Back on Feb. 25, the Matadors traveled to Malibu and held on for a five-set victory over Pepperdine, which then was ranked No. 1. CSUN got up 2-0 and looked poised to sweep Carroll and the top-ranked Waves. However, the Matadors’ poise soon turned into nervousness before what appeared to be a choke job as the Waves came back, tied the game at 2-2 and forced a fifth set.’
CSUN didn’t blow the game though, and, following the win, it was them who took the top spot in the national rankings. That night, the Matadors were led by the trio of Vance, Nua and freshman Matt Stork. Vance and Nua combined to pound out 23 kills apiece while Stork had a career-high 81 assists.
‘We served and sided-out well against them,’ Vance said. ‘If we do that again, it will affect them and tip the game in our favor.’
Five weeks later in a rematch at the Matadome, the game went the other way for the Matadors as they dropped the first two sets before mounting a gutsy comeback to square the match at two sets apiece. However ‘- perhaps having run low on gas while fighting its way back into the game ‘- CSUN fell short in the fifth set, losing 15-12. Vance had 33 kills in the losing effort while Stork finished with 79 assists.
‘Coming into that game, we knew it was going to be a competitive match,’ junior middle blocker Jacek Ratajczak said. ‘So even though we were down 2-0, we still believed we could come back. Fifth sets are so tricky. Whoever gets lucky points and more breaks will win a 15-point set, and that’s what happened that night.” ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘
The winner of today’s match will not only move on to the championship game on Saturday versus the winner of the UC Irvine-USC game, but will also make a strong case for an at-large bid to the National Championships in Utah. The MPSF is considered the toughest league in the country.
‘Right now, all we are doing is looking at Pepperdine,’ CSUN coach Jeff Campbell said. ‘We are not even looking past Pepperdine at all. We are just going to give it our all, leave it out on the court and hopefully come out on top.’
* LIVE COVERAGE: Follow the Matadors’ run to the MPSF Championship at ‘the Matador Score.’ Live coverage from the Bren Events Center will begin at 5 p.m.