Crawford Court was rocking Friday night, Jan. 13, as the No. 9 UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team took on No. 2 UCLA in the opener of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation league play.
Coming off back-to-back straight-set wins against Stanford and USC, UCI was ready to face a seemingly more formidable foe in the No. 2-ranked Bruins. Boasting a front line that included 6-foot-11-inch, 6-foot-9-inch and 6-foot-7-inch players, UCLA was at a distinct height advantage coming into the game, with UCI’s tallest starter being junior middle blocker David Smith at 6-feet-7-inches. What the Anteater’s lacked in height was more than made up for in heart and determination, as they not only beat the Bruins, but also swept them 32-30, 30-28 and 30-24 before a standing-room only, sell-out crowd.
Jumping out to a quick 7-2 lead in the first game, the Anteaters announced to the Bruins that they were not intimidated, continuously attacking their defense. The Bruins were able to claw their way back into the game, tying the score at 17 a piece. From there on it was a back-and-forth affair with neither team being able to go on a decisive run. It was actually the Bruins’ game to win, as they held a 30-29 lead with the serve, looking to close out the game point. Somebody must have forgotten to tell junior outside hitter Matt Webber about UCLA’s plan, because he took a perfect pass from junior setter Brian Thorton and slammed a spike into the chest of UCLA middle blocker Nick Scheftic, knocking Scheftic back a few steps, something that would become a trend as the night went on.
While only accounting for a single point, this play seemed to send a message to both the opposition and the home team, as UCI took the momentum and closed out the next two points, taking the first game 32-30.
‘We did a really good job of playing to our game plan, showing mental toughness when it got close and not losing our composure,’ Webber said.
Perhaps realizing that they were in danger of getting run out of the building, UCLA came out strong in Game 2, grabbing a 5-4 lead that they would hold onto for most of the game. Attempting to impose their height advantage on the smaller Anteaters, UCLA continually fed to their size, setting Scheftic and outside hitter Sean O’Malley time and time again.
While it did help them hold the lead, it was the UCI tandem of Thorton and Smith that helped to keep the Bruins within reach. Seemingly getting a piece of, or at least altering, almost every attack from the UCLA offense, the play of Thorton and Smith helped the UCI back row to make dig after dig, not allowing the Bruins any chance to build momentum. With the defense playing strong, all UCI needed to find was a little bit of offense in order to take the lead and the game.
Enter junior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky. It was Jablonsky who provided perhaps two of the most memorable plays of the night. Serving early in the second game, Jayson sent a cross-court bullet that struck UCLA’s Scheftic in the head. Later, in a perfectly diagrammed set up, Thorton sent a set toward middle blocker Smith that looked as if it was going to be well-defended by the Bruins. However the set was too high and out of the reach of Smith. This was no mistake, though, as the seemingly misplayed ball caused the UCLA defense to relax, only to watch as Jablonsky came out of nowhere with a high-flying back row attack, slamming the ball right down the middle of the UCLA defense and sending the packed house into a riot. UCLA simply could not match the intensity and drive of the Anteaters and fell in the second game, 30-28.
Hoping to delay the inevitable, the Bruins came out strong again in the third game, jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead and showing UCI that they would not go down without a fight. It was too little, too late though, as UCI rode the momentum from the crowd and the first two games, taking back the lead at 9-8 and never looking back, going on to win the third and final game, 30-24.
‘It was a great win for our program, a great way to start the year off,’ said UCI Head Coach John Speraw. ‘Hopefully we can use this as a building block to continue to improve our play.’
UCI (4-1, MPSF 1-0) will continue league play on the road against USC on Wednesday, Jan. 18.