Crawford Hall roared on Feb. 2 as the No. 11 UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team defeated the No. 7 UC Santa Barbara in three straight sets of 30-14, 30-27, 30-26.
The Anteaters secured their victory with three consecutive sets that revealed the team’s ferocity.
Said Michael Kennedy, senior middle blocker for the Gauchos, ‘I don’t think we [UCSB] had anywhere near the intensity UCI had.’
The court did not favor the opponent, as the Anteaters began strong with successful kills from sophomore outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky, junior libero Paul Spittle and freshman middle blocker Aaron Harrell.
UCI dominated the scoreboard for the entire first set, blocking most of the Gauchos’ attempts.
While the Anteaters achieved 17 kills from an attempted 26, the opponent managed 8 kills from an attempted 26.
Spittle’s digs kept the ball in play throughout the match and the crowd watched as his floor dives met the opponent’s spikes every time.
The first set ended 30-14, with the Gauchos trailing far behind.
Considering UCI’s performance in recent matches, UCI Head Coach John Speraw commented, ‘If we continue to compete at this level, we’ll get victories.’
The Anteaters and Speraw agreed that the previous losses were very good experiences and revealed the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Competing against higher-ranked teams like UCLA, Pepperdine and Hawaii has only fueled UCI’s ambition to climb from its 11th-place ranking.
Expecting a stronger UCI for the next set, UCSB unexpectedly raised the bar.
As the Anteaters made their way back into their positions, the Gauchos sent hard-to-block serves in every direction.
Although UCI remained tough on the court, an obvious physical challenge arose. The Gauchos came back with 15 whopping kills that outnumbered the Anteaters’ 14.
With the possibility of a lost set hovering, outstanding efforts from freshman outside hitter Jon Steller and sophomore middle blocker David Smith helped the Anteaters obtain a safe lead again.
The Gauchos tried their best to meet the demands of the increasingly defensive Anteaters but failed to break through sophomore outside hitter Matt Webber and sophomore libero Brandon Mel. This meant another set for UCI, a very close 30-27 over UCSB in the end of the second set.
The set’s close results following the previous set’s meant that the third set would be anything but a walk in the park.
Speraw said, ‘Our blocking has to be significantly better’ for the games to come.
Speraw’s players revealed a lot of communication and organization on the court, obviating the possibility of a season dominated by the Anteaters.
To conclude the game in only three sets, the Anteaters fought the opponent hard.
The Gauchos continued to improve their performance in the third set, making sure never to fall behind by more than one point and often leading by only one or two.
The fans cheered tirelessly, frustrated with an often-tied scoreboard.
Both sides confronted the referee as the calls became more provoking.
Smith and sophomore setter Brian Thornton, along with Spittle, Mel and Harrell, turned the game in UCI’s favor at the last possible second. After playing their hearts out for the victory, a few errors from UCSB helped put the game in UCI’s favor. The Anteaters won it 30-26.
The team, overwhelmingly composed of freshmen and sophomores, competed with an unexpected cohesion among all players.
Anticipating victories this season, Steller said, ‘We’re looking forward to taking out another team ahead of us [in rank].’
The next Anteater home game will be against UC San Diego on Feb 9. in Crawford Court.