Coming off an impressive split with the No. 1-ranked BYU Cougars on the road, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team was set to host two home games against unranked Stanford and No. 13 Pacific on Friday and Saturday night. What the Anteaters hoped would be a weekend sweep and a step towards regaining the top spot in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference turned into a disappointing split as the host Anteaters took the first match against Stanford 3-0 but failed to rally against the Pacific Tigers, falling 3-2 and dropping their record to 12-3 overall and 7-3 in conference play.
In the first match against the Stanford Cardinal, UCI came out cold, falling behind early in game one. Despite trailing for almost the entire game, UCI stayed close behind the excellent play of its middle blockers, senior David Smith and junior Aaron Harrell, who totaled four kills apiece in the game. After finally tying the game at 27 on a kill by senior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky, UCI closed the game out 30-28. With the loss, it appeared as though the visiting Cardinal had some of the wind taken out of their sails and put up little resistance over the next two games, losing both to the score of 30-22 and falling in a sweep to the Anteaters at 3-0.
While the match went very well for the team, it was not without its share of errors for the No. 2-ranked Anteaters. They were plagued by service problems throughout all three games, finishing with 24 on the match, and seemed to have a difficult time establishing any kind of a tempo.
‘We can chalk the service errors up to a sea-level issue,’ said Head Coach John Speraw. ‘Coming back from playing in Provo, Utah against BYU, it takes a little time to adjust. Overall though we played well as a team and really showed our depth out on the court.’
The depth was evident in looking at the final score sheet where five Anteaters recorded seven kills or more. At the top was Jablonsky with 13 kills, followed closely by freshman outside hitter Cole Reinholm, who totaled 10 kills, and senior opposite Matt Webber who finished with seven. On the match, UCI hit .347 as a team and recorded 19 block assists, highlighted by solo blocks from Smith and Webber.
The following night, the Anteaters looked to add to their two game winning streak against the Pacific Tigers. Unfortunately for them, the Tigers did not get the memo that they were the lower- ranked team. In a match that saw UCI drop the first two games by a total of four points, only to then battle back and convincingly take the next two, the visiting Tigers defeated the host Anteaters 3-2, sending a message to UCI that it cannot take any opponent lightly.
‘Hopefully this will help to serve as a wake-up call for us,’ said Reinholm. ‘We have to get back to playing our game right from the beginning and stop falling behind early all the time. We’ll bounce back from this and be better than before.’
Hopefully, Reinholm is right, because the UCI team that showed up Saturday night looked nothing like the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. While they lost by only two points in both the first and second games, the team trailed for much of both and could not gather any momentum. It wasn’t until the third game that the Anteaters began to see signs of life and showed why they were ranked preseason No. 1.
Needing a win to simply stay alive, senior setter Brian Thorton took control of the game, sending perfect passes to the UCI attackers again and again. Reinholm, Jablonsky and Smith fired shot after shot at a Tiger defense that was simply unable to answer.
UCI took games three and four 30-20 and 30-18, respectively, and seemed to have grabbed all of the momentum heading into the fifth and final game. However, unlike the game against UC Santa Barbara and the comeback from a 0-2 deficit, UCI did not have the ability to close out the match, dropping the fifth game 15-10 and having to witness the visiting Tigers celebrating on their home court.
After the game, Speraw was visibly upset. ‘I didn’t say anything to them in the locker room. There is nothing I can say about this game. … It was very disappointing.’
The loss most certainly will drop UCI in the rankings, but the silver lining is that the season is still young. Hopefully, this loss will be a blessing in disguise and the team will re-focus and come out even more determined. There is still time to reclaim the No. 1 ranking.
If the Anteaters continue their sloppy play, they will be at risk of losing an at-large berth to the NCAA Championships in May at Ohio State University.
The Anteaters will look to get back on a winning streak when they take on UC Santa Cruz on Wednesday Feb. 14 at Crawford Hall.
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