USC volleyball player Tony Ciarelli serves up an ace during a match against… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Tony Ciarelli did not set out to be the king of aces.
USC's 6-foot-6 senior outside hitter spent most of his life honing a number of volleyball skills: serves, an array of powerful spikes and well-placed shots, intimidating blocks and efficient passes.
Yet when Ciarelli is behind the service line for the top-ranked Trojans, the anticipation from teammates and fans is palpable.
So is the dread on opponents' faces.
Midway through the first set of USC's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal victory over Cal State Northridge, for instance, Ciarelli boomed a salvo of four consecutive serves. The Matadors failed to return any. The game and match — judging from the body language of the Northridge players — essentially were over.
It's been a similar story during much of the Trojans' 18-match winning streak, a run that has vaulted Ciarelli into national player-of-the-year consideration.
Now, the Trojans are on the verge of possibly securing their third Final Four appearance in four seasons. And Ciarelli, the national leader in service aces, senses an opportunity to lead a young USC team to its first national title in 22 years.
"This has been the most surprising year," he says. "If you would have told me in August that this was going to happen, I would have called you crazy."
On USC's senior night a few weeks ago, most players were escorted onto the court by one or two family members.
Ciarelli's clan numbered more than a dozen.
"He's always been surrounded by a village," says his mother, Cammy.
Ciarelli's family is full of outstanding volleyball players and athletes.
His father, Rocky, played at Long Beach State and in some pro beach events. He coached for two decades at Huntington Beach High and served as a volunteer assistant at USC during Tony's first two seasons.
His mom, the former Cammy Chalmers, played at UCLA and won more than a dozen pro beach tournaments partnering mainly with Olympian Holly McPeak. Cammy also coached at the high school and college levels.
His older sister, Felicia, and several cousins were standout high school players. Uncles and aunts coach various sports. And his paternal grandparents, who host huge Italian family dinners every Sunday, also were athletes and coaches.
"I am," the 22-year-old Ciarelli says, "a product of my environment."
His mother remembers consoling the ultracompetitive young Tony when he lost to her in the board game Candy Land. But she also giggles while unapologetically conceding, "I wasn't going to roll over and let him win."
The competitive atmosphere wasn't any less forgiving on the sand courts near the Huntington Beach Pier. There Ciarelli first watched and later played with and against his father's friends, the shot-making power often surpassed by the colorful smack talk through the net.
That influence was apparent to anyone who watched Ciarelli interact with opponents, referees and opposing fans during his first three seasons at USC. His own coaches and older teammates also occasionally bore the brunt of Ciarelli's emotions.
Rocky Ciarelli knows where that fire, that edge, comes from. It's the way players of his era used to compete.
Now, with Tony's college career nearing its end, Rocky's voice cracks when recalling the senior night ceremony and what it has meant to watch his son mature.
"There's no doubt," he says, "there's some old school in him."
Tony Ciarelli entered the Northridge match ranked fourth nationally in kills and No. 1 in service aces, momentum-turning plays that have helped the Trojans win every match since a loss to UCLA nearly three months ago.
In describing Ciarelli's serve, Trojans Coach Bill Ferguson opts for a baseball analogy.
"He has the Roger Clemens fastball," Ferguson says, "but he also has Greg Maddux's control."
Ciarelli's serving went into overdrive a week after the loss to UCLA, when the Trojans traveled to Pepperdine.
He had made a subtle change, tossing the ball without forward spin and hitting it without an exaggerated wrist snap. Instead of receiving powerful but controllable top-spin serves, the Waves were left to negotiate high-velocity knuckleballs.
During one stretch, Ciarelli served 13 consecutive points, four via aces.
"The first serve, I hit it hard," he says, "and the second serve was harder. I did that consistently until it was 13 serves, then I got tired."
Two weeks ago at Long Beach State, Ciarelli served 11 aces, a conference record.
Ciarelli likens the game-changing effects of serves to opponent-demoralizing blocks at the net.
"When you block a guy straight down it definitely gets in his head a little bit," he says. "When you get someone to shank a ball, you obviously are in his head a little bit too."
Riley McKibbin sees the maturity.