The match itself was a night of hefty blocks, soaring kills and stat keepers getting knees to the head. At one point, every person in the arena was on his or her feet as the third set came to an exhilarating close. At another point, a fan was kicked out for being an obnoxiously good Anteater supporter. In the very last moment, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team landed an automatic birth into the MPSF playoffs. Friday night was quite the productive evening, as the Anteaters knocked out the Beach in four sets, 30-27, 23-30, 33-31, 33-31.
This match went four sets, but as far as Irvine was concerned, it was won in the third set. The emotion and intensity that was displayed throughout this set put Irvine over the edge against the very talented CSULB squad. From the start of the set, the scoring was point-for-point and with every kill, block or dig, the crowd became increasingly louder. But no moment was better received than a momentum-changing sequence that happened with Irvine up 2 points at 19-17.
CSULB unloaded a serve across the net that caused a bad pass from the Irvine side, sending the ball flying toward the front row of the seats behind the scorers’ table. However, also flying through the air was freshman Carson Clark. In an unwavering and almost foolish pursuit of the mis-hit ball, Clark sacrificed life and limb as he dove, head first, completely over the entire scorers’ table to save the ball. He got a hand on it but was unable to recover the point and CSULB came within one point, making it 19-18.
After Clark got up from his crash landing on the other side of the table, he shook it off, made sure the scorer who got a knee to the head was Okay, and showed everyone in the arena that this was a game to win. The team then went on a 5-2 run after the heroic moment to go up 24-21.
However, like they were forced to do all night, Irvine had to battle to keep CSULB from taking the set. As it got late into the game, every decision became increasingly important for both sides as the intensity was peaking with every point. With UCI getting to set point and up by one, 29-28, CSULB’s best hitter, Josh Riley, put one of his 23 kills away to tie it up at 29 and send it into overtime mode.
But as the Bren Events Center has seen so many times before, Irvine found a way to win, even if it meant playing small ball. On an unexpected short set to the outside, Jordan DuFault made a key mid-air decision to softly punch the ball into the CSULB block at an angle that deflected the ball out of bounds. Irvine went up by one on the play, and went back to set point at 30-31. This was a huge play for Irvine that never let the set go and won game, 33-31. This put Irvine up 2-1 in the match and set up a fourth set with the momentum and crowd completely on the side of Irvine.
“That is a team that played very good defense,” said Coach John Speraw. “[CSULB] dug so many balls [but] we just kept finding ways to get more attempts. We keep getting team wins and guys keep coming off of the bench and contributing. It has been a great team effort.”
The rotation that Coach Speraw left on the court throughout the entirety of the third and fourth set was a group of guys not used to seeing the court all at once. Clark came off the bench and dominated offensively.
Also coming off the bench was Bryan Simmons who dominated at the net. But the surprise of the night was the contribution of Cory Yoder off the bench who came up with some very timely blocks and kills in the last two sets of the match.
With the scoring still tight through to the halfway point of the fourth set, Yoder put away one of his four kills to put Irvine up 17-16. From that point on, UCI never surrendered the lead and went on to win the match.
This was Irvine’s second win against the Beach this season as it improved its record to 14-3 overall and remains on top of the MPSF.
“The last number of years, we have had to temper expectation,” Coach Speraw said. “This was a big deal in 2007 when we came in ranked number one. This year I don’t think the expectations were high and no one expected us to be where we are right now. And now, we are at 10 wins; that means we are going to [the] playoffs. In this conference, that is an exceptional achievement to pull off in February.”
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