The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team had already secured the No. 1 pre-season ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. They had already run out to a 4-0 record in the early season, taking the 43rd annual Elephant Bar Tournament without losing a single game.
Yet, coming into the opening of conference play against the No. 4-ranked Hawaii Warriors, there were still some questions to be answered. After finishing off the Warriors in straight sets on back-to-back nights (30-28, 30-26, 30-21 and 30-20, 30-22, 30-27), those questions were answered.
Coming out strong right from the opening serve Friday night, UCI and Hawaii went back and forth for most of the first game. With neither team able to build a lead of more than two, they shared kills throughout. Finally, with the score tied 27-27, senior middle blocker David Smith and junior middle blocker Aaron Harrell took it upon themselves to finish the game. After two kills for Smith that helped UCI reach game point at 29-28, it was Harrell who came up with the final play, recording a solo block on a Hawaii spike, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
In the second game UCI fell behind early, trailing 12-8. Head Coach John Speraw looked to his bench for some inspired play, calling upon sophomore opposite John Steller and sophomore outside hitter Taylor Wilson, who had five and two kills respectively. UCI quickly erased the early deficit, tying it up at 17 apiece, and went on to win 30-26.
‘I wasn’t expecting to play in this game,’ Steller said. ‘Coming off my injuries from last year, I had just been cleared to play recently and was expecting to be more of a serve specialist. But once I got out there and the adrenaline started pumping, it all just kind of snowballed.’
Staying with the working combination, Speraw left the two subs in to start game three and he would not be disappointed.
In what was by far the most exciting six points of the entire match, UCI jumped all over the Warriors in the third and final game, quickly building a 6-1 advantage behind (and pardon the pun) stellar play.
After Hawaii scored the first point, senior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky tied it up with a kill down the line. This was then followed by a solo block and a kill from Steller off a one-handed set from senior setter Brian Thornton. The next Hawaii attack was wide, making the score 4-1 and then came the theatrics.
On the next Hawaii attack, Steller made a diving one-handed save to keep the point alive, only to then be outdone as Wilson secured the point with a solo block of his own. As if that weren’t enough, the next point was won by the Anteaters after a flurry of diving digs and saves by the entire Anteater team, again culminating in a solo block by Steller, prompting Hawaii to call a time out as the crowd pulsated with energy.
‘Can’t say enough about the contribution from our bench,’ Speraw said after the game. ‘Wilson and Steller played outstanding. As a team, we had to adjust to playing in the bigger arena at first, but the crowd was a big factor and we just really fed off of it and got everything going.’
The second game of the back-to-back would see the same result for UCI, as they dominated from start to finish on Saturday night and again swept the Warriors.
They were led by senior opposite Matt Webber, who recorded a game-high 15 kills, as well as Wilson, who had a career-high 10 kills. Sophomore libero Brent Asuka tallied eight digs and Thorton finished with 37 set assists.
The win pushed UCI to 6-0 overall and 2-0 in conference play. The Anteaters are riding a winning streak that has seen them shut-out their last five opponents on way to a 15-game winning streak. On the season they have only lost one game, beating Cal Baptist 3-1 in the season opener.
After a season that saw them rewrite most of the UCI record books in 2006, this opening double dip against Hawaii was an early opportunity to show the rest of the conference that the road to the championship will be through Irvine.
Returning all but one starter from last season’s team while welcoming the return of Steller, who sat out all last season due to injuries, as well as an incoming freshman class that was ranked by some as No. 2 in the nation, UCI has all the pieces to the puzzle.
What they showed Friday and Saturday night at the Bren Events Center was that there would be no ‘putting it together’ phase. They are ready to play.
The men’s team will next take on the Cal State Northridge Matadors on the road before heading back home to face UC Santa Barbara on Saturday Jan. 20 at the Bren.
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