The Matador men’s volleyball team (18-13) earned its first ever home playoff win and first playoff victory since 1996 while playing their final home game of the season against the visiting Stanford Cardinal.
The Matadors’ 3-1 (30-23, 28-30, 31-29, 30-19) win against the Cardinal (11-15) moves them on to the next round. The Matadors were taken to new heights on the arm of senior Nils Nielsen, who set a career-high in kills, hammering home 29 in 51 swings.
“I knew this was going to be my last home game, so I might have been a little more focused (and) a little more amped and ready to hit the ball,” Nielsen said. “I wanted to win. The whole team wanted to win. I was focused, I was ready to play and if Jeff (Conover) sets me the ball and I’m killing the ball he will keep going to me.”
Nielsen’s first kill of the evening came in game one and gave CSUN an early 5-3 lead. The Matadors’ desire to win was evident when the Cardinal returned a serve that was hit across the court by Matador Brian Waite to Jeff Conover. Conover set the ball to a charging Nielsen who leaped and killed the ball just out of reach of the Cardinal players, giving the Matadors a 9-6 lead.
The Matadors controlled the pace of game one, getting two service aces from Travis Bluemling and one from James Lischer. Cary Hanson set up the game point in game one after he killed the ball, securing a 29-23 lead.
Waite served a ball to the Cardinal that was set up to be killed by Ben Reddy who struck the ball with force but was denied by the Matadors’ Hanson and Lischer, who blocked the kill to end game one.
“Getting a big block in a game is huge,” said Waite, who had nine blocks on the evening. “(It’s) a big momentum swing and suddenly the other team is on their heels reeling back, trying to get themselves back into their game plan again. Blocks are huge in volleyball.”
In game two, the Matadors and the Cardinal battled back and fourth and with the Matadors clinging to a 28-27 lead, the Cardinal scored two quick points to take the lead back. The game was capped off by a Nielsen kill that went just long, ending game two with the teams tied at one.
“They (Cardinal) put pressure on us, served well, got a couple blocks, and we hit the ball out of bounds in game two,” Matador head coach Jeff Campbell said. “They played very well in game two and three.”
Game three started off the same as the first two, as the Matadors built a five-point lead. The Cardinal would come storming back but Nielsen’s 24th kill of the evening made the score 25-24 in favor of the Matadors.
The Cardinal answered every one of the Matadors points, even tying the score at 29. Waite again led the charge along with Isaac Kneubuhl, who produced a block on a Stanford kill to end the game and give the Matadors a 2-1 series lead.
“In the course of a three to five game match, the best team wins,” said Cardinal head coach Don Shaw. “In game three we could have used a break here or there. When you don’t get too many of them, that can be the turning point in a match. It really hurt (us tonight).
“We’re not very deep and we don’t have a lot of fire power. Northridge has firepower. Nils has carried the team all season. In fact, (he has carried the team) most of his career. When you can set someone 51 times, you’ve got fire power.”
The Matadors dominated game four. With Nielsen serving, the team went on a five-point run during which Nielson earned his 29th kill on a lucky strike that landed just inside the back line. The Matadors won game four on a Hanson kill to end the season and three senior Cardinal players’ careers.
The Matadors last playoff win in 1996 was a 3-1 road victory over Long Beach State, in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament Power Bar Quarterfinal. That team, coached by John Price, went on to lose in the next round 3-1 to UCLA, the eventual tournament winner.
The Matadors will now play second-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals Saturday at 7 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion.