Having recovered from a loss to Hawaii with a 3-1 home win against Princeton on Tuesday night, the UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team was looking to string together some wins as they took on the visiting UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs at Crawford Court Thursday night.
In a nonconference match that had the makings of a trap game for UCI, they still came out strong and never let the Banana Slugs (5-3) establish themselves, sweeping the match 3-0 (30-22, 30-28, 30-18) and improving their record to 8-3 on the season.
Game One was a seesaw match in the beginning with the ‘Eaters taking the early lead only to see UCSC take it right back at 7-6. This seemed to catch UCI’s attention as they quickly took back the lead and never relinquished it, winning the game with a score of 30-22. Led by the trio of senior outside hitter Paul Spittle, junior outside hitter Matt Webber and sophomore middle blocker Aaron Harrell, UCI dominated the net, totaling 11 blocks in the first game alone, along with 15 team kills.
‘We came out a little sluggish in the beginning,’ said junior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky. ‘We were able to take back the lead, but something we can work on is coming out stronger right from the beginning and not falling behind.’
For a team that was clearly outmatched in both height and skill, UCSC came out strong yet again in game two, continually attacking the Anteater defense, finding seams and openings between the UCI blocks. While UCI would lead for almost the entire game, they were never able to push the lead to more than six points with Santa Cruz constantly battling back to keep things close. Unfortunately for the Banana Slugs, this game proved to be the coming-out party for freshman outside hitter Taylor Wilson who, despite not playing at all in Game One, came out in Game Two on fire. Wilson racked up four kills in the game to go along with two blocks, helping to keep the Banana Slugs at bay and leading UCI to a 30-28 victory and a 2-0 lead.
‘It’s always good to get some playing time, especially in a closely fought game,’ Wilson said. ‘I was a little nervous coming out, but once you get into the flow of the game, you just start playing and having fun.’
If the second game was fun for Wilson, then the third game was a blast. Up 2-0 and in a position where a letdown was possible, Webber and Jablonsky stepped up to ensure that the match would not go another game. Showing why he is one of the best outside hitters around, Webber repeatedly sent kill after kill over, around and, at times, through the Santa Cruz blocks, staking UCI to a quick 15-9 lead and squashing any hopes of a comeback. Jablonsky decided to join in the fun, totaling four kills in the third game with a series of back-row attacks, along with some superb serving.
Other notables in the third game were the play of senior outside hitter Steffin Rangel and sophomore outside hitter Brett Kohout. Both came off the bench to pick up right where the starters left off. Rangel totaled four kills on six attempts, while Kohout had perhaps the play of the game, single-handedly blocking a spike attempt by one of the Banana Slugs to take a point for UCI. UCI maintained control throughout the game and won the third and final game, 30-18, to sweep the match 3-0.
Even in a match that seemed to feature so many good things, with only a few unforced errors, primarily in the serving game, UCI Head Coach John Speraw saw areas in need of improvement.
‘It was a good win, with some impressive play by Wilson and Kohout,’ Speraw said. ‘But when we look at the game film, I think there are going to be some things we are going to need to work on. Our blocking has to improve as well as our execution.’
Even with the necessity of the improvements and work, UCI looked very much like the No. 4- ranked team in the nation Thursday night. Hopefully they can continue to improve and win. They play their next game on Feb. 8 at home against Cal State Northridge.