Head coach Jeff Campbell was not sure what kind of team he would have as the 2012 season opened in January. The Matadors were coming off a 7-22 season in 2011 where they missed the postseason for the first time in 10 years and although the squad played very well in the fall, there was uncertainty with many new players at key positions.
"We went into this season wanting to be better than last season and we were better," said Jeff Campbell who concluded his 15th season as the Matadors' head coach. "We didn't make playoffs last year so making the playoffs this season was a good step up for this team. So when I look at the big picture from last year to this year we were greatly improved."
Two players Campbell knew he could count on were four-year starter Matt Stork and two-year starter Drew Staker. Stork was in the second year in his transition from setter to outside hitter while Staker had been a fixture at middle blocker since the 2011 season. The rest of the starting lineup would be a work in progress and one that Campbell hoped would become a consistent and cohesive unit.
"That was the plan going into the season but unfortunately we lost a couple of our middles due to injury and Drew and Jared (Moore) had to play the entire year and by the end of the season physically they were in bad shape. Last year Matt hit over .300 for us and this year he had some injuries to deal with so that really prevented him from reaching his potential."
Even though Stork had his struggles in 2012, his Matador career will be one to remember. After four years, Stork had a hand in 66 Northridge wins and ranks among the top-10 in Matador history in assists, aces, digs, block assists and total blocks.
Northridge also had the services of returning players Danny Rodrick, John Baker, Jared Moore, Greg Faulkner, Brandon Lebrock and Cory Wagner each of whom picked up valuable experience in 2011 and for Baker 2010 as well. But Campbell's immediate task was to mix in a solid group of newcomers, some of which had never played for the Matadors.
The first was 6-9 opposite Julius Hoefer who came to Northridge via Steingaden, Germany. Another was 6-7 setter Filip Tomicic who transferred from Cal Baptist but hailed from Osijek, Croatia. Still another was Sina Aghassy, a libero who transferred from Hawaii just before the start of the season. Campbell also had 2010 redshirts Charlie Condron, Kyle Stevenson and true freshman Travis Magorien to incorporate into the mix. If Campbell and the Matadors were to be successful and return to the postseason.
After running the offense through Tomicic for much of the fall exhibition season, Campbell added Magorien and senior Danny Rodrick to the setter mix as the season wore on.
"We did have some uncertainty a certain positions especially setter where we had three different setters at different times," said Campbell. "Anytime you're trying to develop a team, playing with three different setters is going to be a problem. For sure that was a disadvantage for us but we won't have those same issues next year.
"One of the things we needed was everyone giving 100% effort and from that point we could deal with the inexperience. Having new guys becomes less of an issue if those guys are older transfers but all of the guys we had were new and had limited experience. That affected our team big time this year so having another whole season under their belt is going to be extremely beneficial for our team moving forward."
With the injury bug hitting the team hard in 2012, doors were opened for several players and Lebrock was one who certainly took advantage of that. The sophomore outside hitter was named to the All-MPSF Team for the first time after finishing second on the team with 260 kills in a career-high 608 attacks.
"Offensively, Brandon wound up getting a lot more sets than I really anticipated as well as a lot more kills," said Campbell. "He really stepped up and did a great job especially from the numbers he had last year. He really developed into one of the premier players on this team."
Moore was also thrust into the starting lineup when Faulkner, a 2011 MPSF All-Freshman selection, was shelved for the season after suffering an injury during practice. Moore responded by playing in a career-high 30 matches while starting 26 of those. The junior led the MPSF for a portion of the season before ultimately hitting a team-high .368 in 285 attacks. Moore and Staker each passed 100 blocks for the season.
Another area of concern was on the right side where Campbell installed Hoefer as his starter but had Baker in the wings in case Hoefer faltered. Hoefer proved to be a difference maker, as evidenced by being named to the MPSF All-Freshman Team, but had his struggles in his first season of collegiate volleyball. He led the team in kills (286), kills per game (2.98) to go with 18 aces, 92 digs and 63 blocks and was named MPSF Player of the Week after leading Northridge to a pair of wins over Hawai'i (Mar. 23-24). Baker proved to be more than an adequate backup as he came on for Hoefer several times over the final two months to hit .277 while averaging 2.48 kpg.
After redshirting in 2011, Stevenson also got an extended look at the outside hitter spot alongside Lebrock and played well despite typical first-year struggles. The same could be said for both first-year libero's Condron and Aghassy who manned the back line for the first time at Northridge. Both started a significant number of matches with Condron earning a lions share of the starts over the final two months of the season.
The Matadors got off to somewhat of a slow start, dropping four of their first five matches all against teams ranked among the top-15 in the nation. Northridge rebounded by winning three of its next five but three ensuing losses had the Matadors at 4-9 after 13 matches.
"We played a lot of good teams on the road early in the season and we had a very inexperienced team," said Campbell. "We really didn't do a great job dealing with those challenges early on but in the middle of the season, once we started playing some home matches, we started playing better and more cohesively."
Following their first road win Feb. 24 at UC San Diego, the Matadors were set to open up a season-long, nine-match homestand which they hoped would turn their season around. Northridge won five of the nine matches on the homestand to edge closer to .500 at 10-13 for the season.
"We won some key matches during that homestand that propelled us into the playoffs," added Campbell.
Heading into the homestretch of the regular season, the Matadors were in a dogfight with several teams for the eighth and final spot in the MPSF Tournament. A road win over Pacific and a home win over Pepperdine gave the Matadors the margin they needed to clinch a spot in the postseason and although Northridge's season ended in a quarterfinal loss at top-ranked USC, the Matadors achieved a portion of what they set out to do.
"It was a big step for us the get into the playoffs," said Campbell. "I was certainly hoping to go farther than the first round of the playoffs but our guys played hard and I was really proud of the way they played. They fought and had a lot of heart out there so expectations-wise I'm OK with what we did this season.
The Matadors finished the season with a 12-18 overall record, the 13th time in Campbell's 15 seasons that Northridge has achieved double figures in wins.
"Looking at next year I think we'll be better and I think that one of the things we were lacking this year was experience and age and by having another season of experience that's going to help our team out a lot," said Campbell.
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