For the UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team, the goal has been to get back to playing like they did in the preseason. Yes, they are ranked No. 3 nationally, and yes, they are riding a four-game winning streak, but, as Head Coach John Speraw put it, ‘We still have work to do. We were playing our best volleyball in the preseason, passing, serving and our defense was tremendous. We are working to get back into playing at that caliber.’
While Speraw might be correct in his assessment, it’s scary to think that the UCI team that dominated the No. 15 Pacific Tigers in a three-game sweep could have played much better. Pouncing on the Tigers right from the beginning, UCI came out in Game 1 and established dominance right from the start behind kills by junior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky, junior outside hitter Matt Webber and sophomore middle blocker Aaron Harrell.
While the hitters for the Anteaters were continuously finding holes in the Tiger defense, it was the strong service game of junior setter Brian Thornton that seemed to give Pacific the most trouble. Not using the traditional jump serve, Thornton served what appeared to be a floater from the back line, yet the movement on the ball made it very similar to a knuckleball in baseball. Frustrated and confused, the Pacific defense simply could not figure out Thornton’s serve, as it constantly caused problems on the first pass, forcing the Tigers out of their offense. This all added up to just too much of the Anteaters, as the Tigers fell to UCI 30-23 in the first game.
Perhaps feeling a little overconfident in Game 2, UCI came out flat and sloppy as the Tigers jumped to an 8-5 lead early on, seeming to take all the momentum. Enter junior middle blocker David Smith. Going off of exactly what his coach said as he talked about the need to improve in the defensive department, Smith controlled the net all night long. Teaming up with Thornton and Webber, as well as senior outside hitter Paul Spittle, Smith disrupted the Tiger attack time and time again, not only contributing to seven total blocks, but also forcing the Pacific attackers to change the direction of their kills, causing them to strike them out of bounds multiple times. It was behind the stellar play of Smith that UCI surged to a closely fought Game 2 victory, 30-26.
‘It was a good win for us. I felt like we did a good job of defending the net and blocking,’ Smith said. ‘We just have to keep working on our side of the net and continue to improve our game.’
Improve they did, as they showed no signs of letting up and came out strong in Game 3. Using a combination of consistent blocking by the front row coupled with the high-flying attacks of Webber, Jablonsky and Spittle, as well as numerous unforced service errors on the Tiger’s part, UCI never trailed in the third and final game.
In a play that really defined the night, Smith served with the Anteaters up 28-22. He sent a rocket down the left side of the court that went right in between two confused Tigers for the point. Aaron Harrell then finished off the game with a kill off of a quick set from Thornton, giving UCI the sweep, taking Game 3 30-22.
‘Our blocking has gotten better, as well as our back row defense,’ Speraw said. ‘We are starting to play really well, our defense is getting better and better and we are putting a lot of effort into everything we are doing.’
Let’s hope that UCI continues to improve as the season goes on. Now riding a five-game winning streak, the Anteaters go out on a three-game road trip before returning on March 10 to host the BYU Cougars in a game that will be played in the Bren Events Center.
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