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CS Northridge Tries to Ride Waves to Final : College volleyball: Matadors appear to be peaking as they take on Pepperdine today in tournament semifinals.


John Price's frustration could turn into his salvation.

Price has believed all season that his Cal State Northridge men's volleyball team is as athletically talented as any in the nation. Yet, each time the Matadors seemed ready to shift into a higher gear, they inexplicably sputtered.

And now they face the question: Will it happen one final time?

Northridge (20-9) played perhaps its best match of the season, defeating fifth-ranked USC in four games Wednesday in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament.

But the Matadors probably will need a similar effort to advance past third-ranked Pepperdine (18-5) in a semifinal match today at 4 p.m. at UC Irvine. In the other semifinal, Stanford will meet seventh-ranked Cal State Long Beach at 7 p.m.

"In the playoffs, you usually have to get better every match," Price said. "If you don't, you're out."

Indeed, in the tournament's single-elimination format, there is no margin for error--a factor that could favor Northridge. During the regular season, the fourth-ranked Matadors seemed all too willing to use their safety net.

"Sometimes it seemed like everyone was so confident about making the playoffs that we were waiting until the end of the year," Price said. "We would play a good match and I'd think, 'OK, we've turned the corner.' Then, the next match we would stall."

Early last month, after knocking off second-ranked Stanford on the Cardinal's home floor, Northridge lost to USC. A few weeks later, after defeating then-top-ranked Pepperdine and Long Beach in a span of four days, the Matadors turned around and dropped a decision against lightly regarded San Diego State.

"It would have been different if teams were beating us, but really we were beating ourselves," Price said. "We would make a couple of mistakes, get down on ourselves, get out of our system and give matches away.

"Maybe, if we don't give up on a match, we would have lost a few of those anyway, but that's hard to say because we never got a chance to find out."

Coley Kyman, Northridge's All-American middle blocker and one of four seniors on the team, says there will be no more giveaways.

"When you start out, your goal is to get to the tournament," he said. "When you get there, everything that has happened in the past means nothing. It's like March Madness in basketball. . . . whoever strings some games together at the end takes the whole thing."

Northridge has a four-match winning streak. More impressive, Price said, are back-to-back, emotionally charged victories in difficult matches.

In its regular-season finale, Northridge played at UC Santa Barbara, which needed a victory to reach the MPSF tournament. Before a boisterous crowd of about 1,000, the Matadors won in five games.

"We played with a lot of heart, which was encouraging because we hadn't been doing that all year," Price said. "In the fifth game, it would have been hard for someone to tell which team was fighting for the playoff spot."

On Wednesday, minutes after Northridge defeated USC, Price recalled noticing a change in his team five days before the Santa Barbara match.

"The Monday before that match, we showed up for practice a whole different team," Price said. "They picked up their intensity and showed a level of concentration that, as coach, I wish they'd shown all year. "It's been frustrating at times. I was hoping they were waiting for this, but before today that was all theory."

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