The UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team was redeemed after their shocking Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference tournament loss to Long Beach State on Thursday night the lone at-large berth, and No. 1 seed, in the national final four at Penn State this Thursday and Saturday.
However, to succeed in Pennsylvania, the Anteaters will have to find a way to overcome the disappointment of their semifinal loss.
Maybe it was the two-week layoff, courtesy of the bye week awarded to the No. 1 seed. Perhaps it was the lack of a real home-court advantage, playing in front of a crowd that could at best be deemed neutral. Or it could just be a rite of passage, a team made up of players with little or no postseason experience going up against a team that had been there before.
Whatever it was, the top-ranked Volleyball team stepped onto the court at the Bren Events Center on Thursday night for the second semifinal matchup against the No. 4-seeded Long Beach State 49ers and were off, falling to the them in sweeping fashion, 30-26, 30-20, 30-23.
‘I was concerned going in about our time off,’ commented Head Coach John Speraw after the game. ‘With winning the conference and getting the bye week, we hadn’t played in two weeks and that is always a concern. Long Beach State played a great game, but it was obvious that we were a little rusty coming out.’
Playing a team that they had already beaten twice in the regular season and riding a 21-match winning streak and playing at home where they had gone an undefeated 16-0 on the season, UCI seemed to have everything going in its favor coming into the match. What they didn’t have was the momentum. Seeded No. 4 in the tournament yet ranked second nationally, Long Beach State came in playing some of its best volleyball of the season. And Thursday night was no different.
Riding the attacks of sophomore outside hitter Norm Hutton and senior outside hitter Robert Tarr, the 49ers sent a relentless array of attacks at the UCI defense throughout the night. With junior outside hitter Matt Webber suffering through an off night, the Anteater attack seemed out of synch, resulting in an overall attack percentage of .184 for the match, compared to .444 for the 49ers.
Trailing the entire night, junior and sophomore middle blockers David Smith and Aaron Harrell had no answer for Hutton, totaling two and three blocks respectively. Even sure-handed freshman libero Brent Asuka was having trouble, at one point surrendering back-to-back aces to the serving 49ers. The lone bright spot in the game was senior captain and outside hitter Paul Spittle, who continued to fight and encourage his teammates even as it grew apparent that it just wasn’t the Anteaters’ night. While his stat line read seven kills, three aces and four digs, it was the fire and leadership that Spittle provided that ended up having the biggest impact. While the loss dropped UCI out of the MPSF tournament, they earned enough respect during their run to the top that they will play for the national title.
‘Obviously this was a disappointment for us,’ Spittle said in regard to the match and the possible postseason berth. ‘You get a big high for a game of this magnitude and it was a bit of a letdown. … We just have to keep our composure, learn from our mistakes and get better as a team.’
While the coach and the players did not address the issue, it was obvious from a spectator’s perspective that the supposed ‘home-court advantage’ awarded to the No. 1-seeded Anteaters was nonexistent. With a crowd that was roughly split down the middle between UCI and Long Beach State fans, it was the 49er following that made itself heard throughout the match and seemed to add fuel to their team’s fire. It was a letdown after all the hard work done by the team during the regular season to secure the top seed and then not profit from playing on its home court.
UCI can make everyone forget about their failure in the MPSF tournament by bringing home the national championship trophy.
The Anteaters will play fourth seeded, and tournament host, Penn State on Thursday at 5 p.m.—the game will be broadcast live on ESPNU. If they win, they’ll face the winner of the UCLA/IPFW match on Saturday night at 4 p.m., also live on ESPNU.
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