May 13, 2010

Matador Men's Volleyball Season in Review

May 13, 2010

NCAA Tournament Photo Gallery

2010 marked another banner season for Cal State Northridge men's volleyball.

Although the season ended in disappointing fashion in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, the 2010 Matadors firmly etched their names in the history of Northridge men's volleyball.

The Matadors finished with an overall record of 23-10 and were 15-7 in the ultra-competitive Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. It was Northridge's third straight season of at least 23 wins and the school's best-ever conference finish (tied for second).

The third-seeded Matadors opened the MPSF quarterfinals at home and dispatched sixth-seeded USC in four sets. Northridge then traveled to Stanford for the MPSF semifinals, a stage a Matador team had not advanced through since 1993. After falling behind two sets to one to a solid BYU squad, Northridge won the final two sets, including a 15-12 thriller in the fifth to adavance to its first conference final in 17 years. The victory over BYU was also monumental because it virtually ensured the Matadors would edge out the Cougars for the NCAA at-large berth.

Facing a Stanford team that would eventually sweep its way to the national championship, the Matadors fell in straight sets in the MPSF final but could rest easy knowing they had done all they could to ensure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Northridge got the call it was waiting for as the team traveled down Highway 5 on the way home from the Bay Area. The Matadors were awarded the NCAA's lone at-large berth and were seeded second behind Stanford and ahead of Penn State and Ohio State. Northridge would take on Penn State, a team the Matadors had defeated in three sets just three weeks earlier.

With the bright lights of a national television audience on ESPN2 and the pressure of playing for a national championship, the Matadors dropped the first two sets to the Nittany Lions before battling valiantly in the final set before falling 30-28. The dreams of their first NCAA Championship in 17 years were dashed but the team knew they had gone further than anyone had expected.

"Our goal every season is to win a national championship," said head coach Jeff Campbell, who wrapped up his 13th season at the helm of Matador men's volleyball. "We didn't win the national championship but we did go to the final four which is the first time a Northridge team has been that far in 17 years."

The Matadors will look to the play of its five graduating seniors as the benchmark of the 2010 season. Theo Edwards, Mike Gaudino, Ali'i Keohohou, Kevin McKniff and Jacek Ratajczak, along with sophomore Matt Stork, junior Tanner Nua and redshirt freshman John Baker, carried the Northridge hopes for the better part of a memorable 2010 season.

The play of McKniff and Ratajczak in the middle became well known across the nation and the two ultimately earned first team AVCA All-America honors. It was the second time for Ratajczak (a second team All-American in 2009) and the first for McKniff. Ratajczak wound up leading the team in kills with a career-high 386 and also averaged a career-best 3.16 kills per game while hitting .456. McKniff was third on the squad in kills with 359, over 110 more than his previous career-high. He also hit a team-high .477 which led the nation and served a team-high 40 aces which was among the best in the MPSF.

"Kevin and Jack both had phenomenal years," said Campbell. "Both were first team All-Americans and I'm really happy that they were recognized for their hard work."

Gaudino will go into the Matador career record books in digs and aces and started nearly 100 matches in his career. He wound up the 2010 season with 273 kills (2.22 kpg), a career-high 292 digs (2.37) and a career-best 104 total blocks. He earned honorable mention All-MPSF honors this season.

"Mike was a four-year starter for us and did all the little things," said Campbell. "He dug, blocked, served and passed fantastic for us and he can really be proud of the way he played."

Keohohou, along with Gaudino, was the foundation of the Matador passing game. A solid libero, he led the team with 303 digs this season and will rank among the top players in Nortrhidge history in digs and digs per game.

"Ali'i has started for us off and on for four years but was a big reason behind our middles being so successful this year because he passed so well," said Campbell.

Edwards, who became a starter for the first time in his career this season, wound up leading the team in kills per game (3.32) and was second with a career-high 379 kills. He also set career-highs in digs (154), blocks (75) and aces (15).

"Theo has been hurt off and on his whole career but really stepped up, was a team leader and led us in kills per game at 3.32," said Campbell. "He really did a great job for us this year."

"We're going to miss these seniors, they all have been with us at least four years and came in at a time where we were just stepping up", said Campbell. "They all worked hard, had the right attitude and produced."

Heading into 2011, the Matadors will rely on a trio of players who saw significant playing time in 2010.

The Matadors could not have achieved what they did without the quiet leadership of sophomore setter Matt Stork. Stork has now started all 64 matches in his two-year Northridge career and has finished among the nation's top setters each year. Nua started the first half of the season at the opposite before Baker assumed the role for the last half. Nua wound up with 242 kills (2.81) while Baker knocked down 196 (2.68 kpg) in his first season.

"Matt will be heading into his third season and we're expecting him to have as good a year as he had in his first two," said Campbell. "Tanner and John were our two opposites this season, but we'll have to wait and see if we have them at opposite or outside next year."

Dillon Auxier, Jeff Baxter, Justin Burridge, Ari Feldman, Ashton Hippenstiel, Jared Moore, Drew Staker and Jim Wielebnicki also contributed to the Matadors' success in 2010 and will return in 2011.

The 2010 season opened with Northridge winning its second straight Santa Barbara Invitational championship, easily one of the toughest men's collegiate tournaments in the country. The Matadors then won their first three MPSF matches running their record to 6-0 before falling to No. 10 UCLA in straight sets on Jan. 22.

"We started out really well and I think all that winning early got to us a little bit because we kind of rolled over to UCLA in that three game loss," said Campbell.

But Northridge bounced back to beat No. 2 Stanford on the road in five sets which set up the Matadors' first of three weeks as the No. 1 team in the nation. In a battle of the top-two teams in the country on Feb. 3, top-ranked Northridge held off the second-ranked USC Trojans in five thrilling sets in front of the largest Matadome crowd of the season.

"Beating SC at home was great for all Northridge fans," said Campbell. "We had a big crowd, The Matadome was packed and we played well and were able to take it to them in game five."

After beating No. 13 UC San Diego on Feb. 12, the Matadors dropped three of their last four matches in the month of February to head into March with a 12-5 overall record.

"February was a tough month for us," said Campbell. "We had quite a few losses in that month and we just were not grooving as well as we could have been. March was a better month for us."

Northridge went 4-2 in March which included a 3-2 win over No. 8 Hawai'i and a pair of sweeps over No. 10 UC Santa Barbara and No. 12 Loyola-Chicago. April opened with an upset of top-ranked Stanford at home which propelled the Matadors to wins in five of their final six matches of the regular season. Northridge was the only MPSF team to beat the eventual national champion Cardinal twice during the regular season.

"We built some momentum in March and were able to finish up the season with a 3-2 win at BYU which was one of the most incredible matches I've ever been involved with," said Campbell.

"When you look at our entire body of work this season, what a great year," said Campbell. "Especially coming off the MPSF preseason poll where we were ranked eighth and we wound up tied for second in the league which is the highest in our history.

"We're really proud of our season, although we lost in the NCAA semifinals, we can still look back and be proud of all we achieved this year."

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