It had been three years since USC women’s volleyball last participated in the NCAA Tournament, a run that culminated in a second-round sweep by Baylor in 2019.
This season, the Trojans met a similar fate. They took all three sets on Friday in the first round against High Point before No. 3 seed Ohio State swept USC in Saturday’s second round.
“I’m bummed for these kids. [They] have worked so incredibly hard and we’ve gone through so much to get to this space,” head coach Brad Keller said. “When you put so much into something like that, it’s just tough no matter what.”
The USC offense was rolling in its first postseason matchup, hitting .394 for the game against the Panthers on its way to a 25-19, 25-19, 25-20 victory. Senior outside hitter Skylar Fields was the primary threat with a game-high 14 kills, but it was the Trojans’ supporting cast that was arguably more impressive.
The three W’s — freshman outside hitter Jordan Wilson, senior opposite hitter Emilia Weske and graduate middle blocker Kalyah Williams — all had wonderful performances to give USC three W’s in three sets. The trio combined for 28 kills to just two attacking errors and all hit over .500.
Additionally, in just her second game of the season, freshman Adonia Faumuina got the start at setter over sophomore Mia Tuaniga. Faumuina stepped up well into the role with 40 assists, two block assists and five digs for the match.
Fields started out strong in the first set with four early kills, and Wilson helped finish the job with five kills on eight attacks as USC pulled away late in the opening frame. The Panthers outside hitters, junior Dylan Maberry and sophomore Sydney Palazzolo, tried to keep up with 10 combined kills in the first set, but it wasn’t enough to match the Trojans’ high-powered offense.
The second set played out similarly, though USC took a little longer to find a groove due to five service errors. Still, the Trojans had their most efficient set of the weekend with 15 kills and two errors on their way to another 25-19 set victory.
The third set was a bit more streaky for both sides, as High Point slowed down USC for some stretches. However, the Panthers’ defense wasn’t up to par, only accruing three blocks for the match. High Point tied the score 20-20 thanks to some Trojan errors, but yet again, USC had its way at the end of the set, going on a 5-0 run to finish the match.
Saturday’s second-round matchup was a much different story for USC. Though Fields again led all players with 14 more kills, she didn’t have a secondary effort around her. In comparison to the first match of the weekend, those three W’s regressed to 17 kills and seven attacking errors, with none hitting higher than .273 in the match.
“Ohio State was a really good team, a really well-coached team,” Keller said. “I thought they were electric in front of their crowd. They hit the ball really well, and they dug so many volleyballs in transit.”
While USC found its rhythm in the back end of sets against High Point, it was a 6-1 run to end the first set by Ohio State that set the tone for the match. The Buckeyes won the opener 25-21 and cruised through the next two sets 25-17 and 25-16.
The Trojans simply couldn’t find an answer for Ohio State, who held a comfortable lead for most of the second set. Keller inserted Tuaniga at setter to try and change things up, but that wasn’t the solution USC needed.
“This season has guided us through a lot together and we grew together as a team,” Weske said. “We definitely were expecting more of ourselves in this moment. It sucks right now.”
Early in the third set, a dramatic save by the Buckeyes followed by the first kill of the season for junior defensive specialist Sarah Sue Morbitzer put Ohio State up 7-3. The wild point gave the Buckeyes even more momentum to put the Trojans away, as the No. 3 seed led by as many as 13 points in a dominant third set.
Two consecutive successful challenges on match point by Keller briefly prolonged the Trojans’ season, but it was nowhere near enough to keep up with the easily superior Buckeyes on Saturday.
“I love this team, I love the direction of where this program is going,” Keller said. “I think this program is in an unbelievably better place than where it started, and I can’t wait for what the future holds.”
USC ends the season with a 22-11 record — its first 20-win season since 2018 — including 13-7 in Pac-12 play.