UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball Head Coach John Speraw witnessed quite a few firsts last year during the Anteaters’ record-setting season. However, when the No. 1-ranked Anteaters took on the No. 6-ranked UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, Speraw was treated to a feat that had not yet occurred during his tenure as head coach. Down two games to none against the Gauchos and facing the very real possibility of seeing its seven game winning streak snapped, UCI rallied together as a team and took the next three games of the match, winning 3-2 (25-30, 28-30, 30-22, 30-25, 15-10) in what was by far their most competitive contest of the season.
‘I’ve been saying it all season. Santa Barbara is a good team and they are going to be there in the end,’ Speraw said after the game. ‘We knew coming in that this was going to be tough. This is a team that we will see later on during the season and probably again in the playoffs.’
The Gauchos certainly looked like a playoff team in the opening two games as they dominated the play at the net. Behind senior opposite Evan Patak, the Gauchos continually turned back UCI’s offensive attack with two- and three-man blocks.
While their defense was extremely tight, the Gauchos offense was just as sound, as the Santa Barbara hitters seemed to find all the holes in the Anteater defense. After falling 30-25 and 30-28, UCI found itself down 2-0 and on the verge of being upset.
When asked what the team was thinking after falling behind early, senior outside hitter and co-captain Jayson Jablonsky said, ‘We are going five. We didn’t panic and we didn’t get away from our game plan. They played very well early on, but at the same time, we weren’t playing our game. We just needed to focus on our play and we knew that we could get back into the game.’
Whatever was said between the second and third game had a dramatic effect on the Anteaters as they came out firing and finally playing like the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
Led by Jablonsky, fellow senior opposite Matt Webber and sophomore outside hitter Taylor Wilson, the UCI attack found its firepower and began to unleash a flurry of kills on the suddenly defenseless Gauchos (5-2, 3-1 MPSF).
After a solo block by senior middle blocker David Smith pushed the lead to 18-12 in favor of UCI in the third game, Wilson sent a kill off of a Gaucho defender for a point. On the next play Jablonsky pretended to wind up for the kill, but then suddenly softly tapped the ball over the flailing arms of the Gaucho blockers, sending the shot into the unoccupied space in the right corner for a point and bringing the crowd to its feet.
UCI (8-0, 4-0) closed out the third game with the help of seldom-used sophomore setter Ryan Ammerman, who assisted on a kill and then broke the backs of the Gauchos when he faked as if he was going to set the ball, only to send a perfectly placed one-handed touch shot into the middle of the Gauchos defense. It would prove to be game point as UCI won the third game 30-22 and slowly began their comeback.
After tying the match at two games apiece by winning the fourth game 30-25, UCI moved to a fifth and deciding game. In the final game UCI would play its best volleyball of the afternoon, leading almost the entire way as they rode the backs of Jablonsky and Webber. With six and three kills respectively in the fifth game alone, the two Anteaters took passes from senior setter and co-captain Brian Thorton and rammed them down the Gauchos’ throats, capturing the game at 15-10 and the match 3-2.
UCI will next take on USC on Jan. 24 at the Bren.