They had the size: 6-foot-8-inch outside hitter Yosleyder Cala and 6-foot-6-inch middle blocker Victor Batista. They had the talent: recent Player of the Week outside hitter Ivan Perez. They had the ranking and the fuel: No.1 in the nation and coming off a heartbreaking loss the night before. They even had the name and reputation: the BYU Cougars, a staple in the volleyball world with their consistently high standing in Division I rankings. The only thing that was missing was the win. UCI had that.
Coming off a five-game thriller the night before in front of nearly 3,000 fans, No. 2 UCI (19-3, 12-2 MPSF) came into the second game of the weekend series with the No. 1 Cougars (14-4, 12-4) looking to complete the sweep. After the night before, a letdown could have been expected, even understood after expending so much energy to fight back and pull out the victory.
Head Coach John Speraw and his team would have none of that. In another nail-biting five-game match, UCI again fell behind two games to one only to claw their way back to tie it at two games apiece. In the fifth and final game, the Anteaters pounced on the Cougars and never looked back, proclaiming themselves to be the nation’s No. 1 team as they took the final game 15-10 and the match 3-2.
It was a night of many stars as the ‘Eaters threw everything they had at the visiting Cougars. Junior outside hitters Matt Webber and Jayson Jablonsky and sophomore middle blocker Aaron Herrel, had 20, 17 and 14 kills respectively. This was a feat in itself as the kills came against the formidable blocking tandem of Cala and Batista for BYU. With both players possessing exceptionally long arms as well as outstanding leaping ability, the UCI attacks would have seemed to have had little chance of succeeding. This was simply fuel for the fire, as the UCI players kept a constantly attacking mindset and refused to let BYU’s blocking prowess deter them.
‘With those two at the net it felt like I was hitting it at the ceiling every time,’ Webber commented after the game. ‘We knew coming in what they could do, but we just kept attacking. This is a big win for us, but we still can learn a lot from these past two games.’
While the strong play from Webber, Jablonsky and Harrell helped UCI match the Cougars’ firepower, it was the solid contributions from all the starters that really provided the extra push. Senior outside hitter Paul Spittle, who stands at a height of 6-foot-1-inch, chipped in with nine kills of his own while at times taking on three BYU blockers standing 6-foot-6-inches and taller.
The stellar play of junior setter Brian Thornton, who ended up with 57 assists on the night and multiple saves for the Anteaters while making the perfect pass time and time again to his hitters, cannot be overlooked.
Many of Thornton’s sets came off passes from freshman libero Brent Asuka who was on the receiving end of some of the Cougars’ strongest attacks. Asuka recorded 10 digs of his own, while also tallying up 29 receptions. It was the perfect definition of a team game as each player made sure that his job was done. What made it all the more satisfying was that it came on the back end of the doubleheader.
‘Coming off last night’s win and having to play the next day, it’s never easy,’ Harrell said. ‘We watched the tape of Friday’s game and felt like we had to prepare for them to come out with a more balanced attack tonight.’
Balanced attack or not, BYU simply could not close out the match as they, for the second night in a row, held a two games to one lead only to watch it slip away.
‘[This is a] big win for us and our program,’ Speraw said. ‘We still have a lot we can learn, but this win will give us a lot of confidence as we close out the season.’
UCI will continue its home stand as well as its 13-game winning streak as they take on USC on Thursday, March 16.
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