May 6, 2009

2009 Matador Men's Volleyball Season in Review

May 6, 2009

PHOTO GALLERY

Cal State Northridge wrapped up another extremely successful season of volleyball in 2009. Not only did the Matadors win a school-record 24 matches but Northridge reached the MPSF semifinals for the second consecutive season.

During the memorable 2009 season, the Matadors won 14 home matches for the first time ever, had a double figure win streak for the second straight season, had five players named All-MPSF and had a pair of players earn All-America accolades.

After earning the third seed in the MSPF Tournament, Northridge took care of sixth-seeded BYU in a quarterfinal match in The Matadome before falling to second-seeded Pepperdine in the MPSF semifinals ending its season at 24-7.

"It was a good year," said Matador head coach Jeff Campbell who concluded his 12th season on the Northridge bench. "We obviously fell short of our goal which was to win a national championship but anytime you get over 20 wins in this league is great. And taking third place in a league this competitive for the second straight year is also a good thing."

The comparisons between the 2008 and 2009 teams are inevitable. Both teams reached the MPSF semifinals with largely the same personnel while both set school records in the process. The 2009 squad eclipsed both the 1993 and 2008 teams with 24 wins while this year's team shattered the school record for service aces with 225.

"I thought both last years and this year's teams were pretty similar as far as the level of play throughout the year," said Campbell.

The season certainly started out on a solid note as the Matadors, ranked fifth in the Bison/AVCA Preseason Top-15 Poll, rolled off three straight wins to claim the prestigious UCSB/Elephant Bar Invitational on Jan. 10. Northridge upset second-ranked UCLA in four sets in the opener before defeating No. 14 UC Santa Barbara and eighth-ranked Stanford in the final.

The Matadors carried the momentum into their first road trip of the MPSF season where Northridge swept No. 8 UCLA and took a four-set decision at No. 5 UC Irvine. The win over the Anteaters was the only loss for UCI on its home court during the regular season.

"We had solid wins at UCLA and UC Irvine early on and I think we were playing our best volleyball then," said Campbell.

After a win over UC Santa Barbara in their home opener on on Jan. 23, the Matadors took their first extended road trip of the season with a two-match series at Hawai'i. After falling in the opener in five sets, second-ranked Northridge was knocked off in four sets in the finale by the 12th-ranked Warriors.

"We kind of got tripped up in Hawai'i," said Campbell. "We really just did not play well on that trip."

If nothing else, the losses in Hawai'i fueled the Matadors on a season-long, 10-match win streak which began the following match against No. 7 Long Beach State. During the streak, Northridge posted wins over No. 15 UC San Diego and No. 7 Stanford which set up one of the more memorable wins in Matador history.

Firestone Fieldhouse has been a house of horrors for Northridge over the past several years, but the Matadors were able to erase years of futility with a thrilling five set win on Feb. 25. After winning the first two sets in convincing fashion, Northridge had to hang on to a 15-12 win in the fifth set to defeat the top-ranked Waves in Malibu for the first time since 1996.

"Beating Pepperdine on the road was huge for us in that it gave us some momentum going into matches at USC and at home against BYU," said Campbell. "We had some great wins and had a stretch of about two months during the season where we played really good volleyball."

After continually moving up the polls, the win at No. 1 Pepperdine followed by a convincing three-set sweep at No. 5 USC gave the Matadors the AVCA's number one ranking for the second time in school history on Mar. 2. Northridge held the top ranking for two weeks before a five-set loss at home to No. 2 UC Irvine dropped the Matadors to second.

"It was really nice to be in that position," said Campbell. "We had definitely been playing the best of any team for almost two months there and it's always an honor to be in the number one spot."

After a trio of non-conference wins in mid-March, Northridge went through a bit of a lull dropping three of its next six matches as the regular season wound down.

"We got a bit tired at that point," said Campbell. "Losing to UC Irvine then losing at Stanford and at Long Beach State, those were some tough losses for us. It's really tough to play really great volleyball for an entire season but we did it for a good portion of the season."

The Matadors still finished strong, defeating USC, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara over their final four matches. A third-place MPSF finish (16-6) gave Northridge the third seed in the tournament and the Matadors defeated a solid BYU team in four sets in the quarterfinals before falling in four to Pepperdine in the semifinals at UC Irvine's Bren Center.

Among the individual highlights of the 2009 season was the play of First Team AVCA All-American Eric Vance. Vance had his finest season in a Matador uniform as he led the Matadors in kills (625), kills per game (5.58) and service aces (57). Vance was also third in digs (213) and fourth in blocks (61) while leading the Matadors with nine double-doubles. He set the Northridge single-season record in aces with 57 and came within two aces of tying Eckhard Walter for most aces in school history. He finished his senior campaign among the top-three players in the nation in both kills and aces.

"Eric was phenomenal," said Campbell. "He hit .377 as a passing outside which is incredible. He was our big go-to guy and he worked his butt off for the past five years in this program and it definitely paid off."

Vance wrapped up his his career ranked fifth in Northridge history in kills (1,668) and was third in attempts (3,606) and second in aces (181).

"Eric was good the first year he played here but he was dominating by his senior season," added Campbell.

The Matadors also received an All-America performance from first-year starter Jacek Ratajczak. The junior middle blocker earned Second Team AVCA All-America honors after finishing the 2009 season fourth on the Matadors in kills with a personal season-best 271. He averaged 2.44 kills per game while hitting .468 which ranked fourth in the nation. Ratajczak also added a team-high 120 total blocks (18 solo) and career-highs of 21 aces and 41 digs.

"If you look at his stats from last year to this year, Jack made the biggest improvement of anyone," said Campbell. "The level of his play just skyrocketed and we needed it with the loss of Cody Loe in the middle. Cody's loss really could have affected the team in a negative way but it didn't because Jack really stepped up."

Fellow middle blocker Kevin McKniff also had a solid season as the junior earned Third Team All-MPSF honors. McKniff led the MPSF in hitting at .478 and also etched his name in the Northridge record books in total blocks (284) and block assists (262).

"Kevin had a great year for us," said Campbell "He was deserving of all-conference honors and he was in the top-five for hitting percentage in the league almost all year."

Juniors Mike Gaudino and Ali'i Keohohou were also integral parts of the Matador starting lineup the entire season. Gaudino posted season-highs in kills, kills per game, assists, aces, digs and blocks. His 43 aces this season ranks 10th in Matador single season history.

"Mike was steady and was one of our better passers," said Campbell. "He also served well this season."

With 321 digs, Keohohou set the Northridge single season record surpassing Doug English who had 318 digs in 2003. His 2.92 digs per game average ranks second and Keohohou heads into his senior season ranked ninth in Northridge history with 624 career digs.

"Ali'i really played well, I think he was number three in the leage in digs," said Campbell. "His passing was much improved from last year and his leadership and steadiness was a big reason we passed well this season."

Underclassmen also were instrumental in the Matadors' success in 2009. Sophomore opposite Tanner Nua finished second on the squad in kills while freshman setter Matt Stork led the nation in assists per game.

"Tanner had some great matches for us," said Campbell. "When he was playing well he was unstoppable. He didn't quite hit for the percentage we wanted him to hit this year but he'll come back and be stronger and work hard and be ready to go next year."

"Matt was an incredible player coming in as a freshman," said Campbell. "He did a great job and he really stepped up and set well."

Stork set the Matadors to a team hitting percentage of .334 which was third-best in the nation and challenged the Matador team record of .358. Stork also posted 1,588 assists as a freshman good for sixth in the Northridge season list.

"Matt really led the team through great play," said Campbell. "He was a major part of our offense, touching every ball and one of the biggest reasons we did so well. His composure was a big plus, he didn't get rattled very often at all and his sets were really consistent."

Northridge returns all but Vance in 2010 as the Matadors look to equal the bar they have set for themselves over the past two seasons.

"It's going to be tough, our schedule will be as tough as ever and I think every team is going to be better," said Campbell. "But we've got some good core players coming back and some good redshirts that will be coming up and help us out."

"Overall, I'm very pleased with our season," said Campbell. "I'm happy that we did so well but disappointed at the same time that we didn't make it the Final Four. But I'm really proud of the way these guys worked all year and did such a great job on and off the court."

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