Apparently the top-ranked UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team is oblivious to the pressure that comes with being the target of the rest of the nation.
Taking the best shot No. 6 Long Beach State had to offer, UCI recovered from suspect passing and blocking in the early part of the game in time to win. Losing the first set only to fight back and sweep the next three, 28-30, 30-21, 34-32, 30-26, the Anteaters beat the 49ers in front of a capacity crowd of 800 at Crawford Court on Saturday night.
The win extends the Anteaters’ winning streak to a nation-best 17 wins. Their last loss was back in late January. Although that may bring added pressure, this squad is feeding off the confidence that comes with the wins, and developing poise that will serve them well once the postseason begins.
‘[The wins] don’t give us extra pressure, it gives us confidence,’ said sophomore middle blocker Aaron Harrell.
UCI (23-3, 16-2 MPSF) needed all that confidence and then some to rally from behind and win the decisive third set. Down 21-26, Irvine would score five unanswered points to tie the game at 26 apiece, led by junior outside hitter Matt Webber’s two kills.
Leading 30-29, the Anteaters would need five match points to shake off the pesky 49ers. Harrell had three kills in the last few plays but junior middle blocker David Smith stuffed a 49er spike to finally take the critical set at 34-32.
‘That was just heart,’ Harrell said. ‘We knew we had to pull that out. We just had to buckle down and take care of fundamentals at the end of that game.’
‘We just knew we weren’t going to lose the set,’ said junior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky. ‘We battled and played every point like it was our last.’
As the third set unfolded, Head Coach John Speraw was certain his team would come out on top.
‘We’ve been steady and calm in pressure situations all year long and there have been many times where we’ve been down [at the end of games],’ Speraw said. ‘Going into overtime doesn’t faze this team too much. We’re steady and made the plays we needed, to win.’
The third set epitomized the intensity of this game. Besides the second set that UCI won convincingly, the other three sets were close. Long Beach State (17-9, 10-8) came out focused and ready to play, holding onto the first set after jumping to an early lead and never relinquishing it.
‘We were expecting Long Beach to come in fired up and play us. I haven’t seen them fired up this much in a while,’ Harrell said.
The difference this night was Irvine’s ability to block. UCI notched a season high 21.5 blocks, led by Smith’s career-high 13 blocks.
‘Certainly it was the best blocking night of the year so that was a big key for us. Usually we don’t block as much but we dig a lot more,’ Speraw said.
In the end, however, it came down to fundamentals.
‘Really, I felt it was a serving and passing game,’ Speraw said.
Webber has a team-high 19 kills and added eight digs, while Jablonsky attacked the 49ers with 14 kills. Harrell had 11 kills on 18 attempts with no hitting errors. Junior setter Brian Thornton had 48 assists.
In addition to the confidence that the team is building, they are coming together at the right time. UCI will play three road games before ending their season at home on April 15 before MPSF playoffs start.
‘I think they’re calm and they don’t get flustered really easily. A lot of this has to do with trust, chemistry. That’s really important,’ Speraw said.
The next matchup for the Anteaters will be against the Tigers of the University of Pacific on April 7. Although the team is setting their sights high, they’re making sure to follow the time-tested philosophy of taking it one game at a time.
‘One of the reasons we’ve won 17 in a row is because we’ve never thought about the streak,’ Speraw said. ‘Every game in the conference is a big match and I don’t think this team has ever gotten ahead of itself. A year ago the team was 9-20, and they haven’t forgotten.’
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