April 20, 2011

Matador Men's Volleyball 2011 Season in Review

April 20, 2011

Cal State Northridge concluded a "disappointing" 2011 season on April 16th with the caveat that the Matadors' fortunes this season were not entirely unexpected.

"It's very difficult to win in this league without experience," said head coach Jeff Campbell. "And unfortunately that's the situation we were in this season after losing five senior starters to graduation. The good from this season is we got a lot of young players experirence."

Picked to finish 10th in the MPSF Preseason Coaches Poll, the 2011 Matadors knew they had their collective hands full trying to replicate the success of the 2010 team that finished second in the MPSF and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Northridge headed into the season with a roster comprised of just five upperclassmen (three seniors, two juniors), four sophomores, two redshirt freshmen and a trio of true freshmen. Having to replace 2010 AVCA All-Americans Kevin McKniff and Jacek Ratajczak, along with All-MPSF selections Mike Gaudino and Ali'i Keohohou and kills per game leader Theo Edwards was going to be a monumental challenge for Campbell and he knew he would have to lean on his newcomers to do it.

True Freshmen Brandon Lebrock and Greg Faulkner immediately assumed starting roles at outside hitter and middle blocker respectively and although both played well this season, both experienced growing pains as first-year players.

Lebrock wound up fourth on the team averaging 1.94 kills per game while starting all but three matches. He also ranked second on the team in aces (20) and was fourth in digs (86) but hit just .161 for the season. Faulkner finished the season with 145 kills (1.79 kpg) while finishing second on the team with a .363 hitting percentage. He also was the Matadors' leading blocker with 69 total, including a team-high 13 solo stuffs.

"There's nothing that can be replaced by getting experience in matches against very good MPSF teams," said Campbell. "Everybody went through a little slump this year but those guys got better as the year went on."

After 18 matches and sitting on a 4-14 record, Campbell made a crucial decision and moved two-year starting setter Matt Stork to one of his outside hitter positions. Although the move didn't necessarily pay off in terms of wins, it became evident that Stork could become one of the top outside hitters in the conference. The change also made the Matadors a better team overall.

"We were hitting over .300 consistently and our numbers were much better after we made that switch," said Campbell. "Overall, I was very pleased with the way we played after we made the switch and as of right now we're building the team around Matt hitting next year because he did so well."

In 11 matches as an outside hitter, Stork averaged a team-high 4.42 kills per game while hitting .282 in 376 attacks. He also led CSUN in aces for the season with 26 and also contributed 132 digs (1.39 dpg) and 51 total blocks.

The Matadors also got important contributions from seniors Tanner Nua and Kaleo Baxter along with sophomores Drew Staker and Dillon Auxier. John Baker, Marty Lorenz, Cory Wagner, Danny Rodrick, Jared Moore, Jeff Baxter and Charlie Condron also played key roles in 2011.

Staker led the Matadors and ranked sixth in the MPSF in hitting at .405 while Kaleo Baxter finished his only season as the starting libero with a team-high 191 digs (2.25 dpg) which ranked among the top-10 in the conference. Nua wound up his senior season with a team-best 202 kills while averaging a team-high 2.62 kills per game.

Rodrick, who assumed the starting setter role after Stork's position change, averaged 6.47 assists per game while leading the Matadors to a .300 or better team hitting percentage in five of the final 10 matches of the season.

In 2012, the Matadors will lose three departing seniors in Nua, Jeff Baxter and Kaleo Baxter but will return a majority of their team and add an influx of newcomers.

"We're adding some players next year that are going to help us," said Campbell. "With those guys, the returning players and this year's redshirts, I think we'll have a very competitive team next year. All positions are open right now so everybody is going to have to play their hardest to make the team."

The wins and losses for CSUN this season came down to a matter of inexperience and simply not being good enough. Playing in the toughest men's volleyball conference in the country means you have to bring your "A" game each and every night. The Matadors did pull off a couple of upsets during the season, including a stunning 3-0 sweep over No. 2 BYU and a five-set comeback over No. 2 Long Beach State.

"We probably played our best match of the year against BYU," said Campbell. "We played high-level volleyball and we finished as well so that was a good win. Coming back and beating Long Beach State was also a good win for us."

The Matadors had two match points on the road at No. 2 Stanford and were also in a position to possibly force a fifth set and upset Pacific at the Spanos Center.

"We were in a lot of matches this season," said Campbell. "Especially in the second half after we made the move with Matt we were in a position to win a couple of matches that we ultimately didn't. We weren't good enough because we didn't have that experience and we just weren't able to put the ball away."

Northridge won just seven of its 29 matches in 2011 and finished tied for 10th in the MPSF at 5-17, a steep drop from the 2010 team that finished 23-10 and 15-7 in conference.

"It's been a tough year from a coaching standpoint," said Campbell. "Any time you're losing matches it's not something you're comfortable with or happy about but having gone through this we can really appreciate winning and hopefully never be in this position again."

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