UC Irvine 3
After sweeping its three-game road trip in dominating fashion and re-establishing itself as one of the elite, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team returned home to host the visiting Cal State Northridge Matadors at the Bren Events Center on Saturday night. In what would prove to be a record-setting night for sophomore libero Brent Asuka, UCI defeated CSUN 3-1 (30-25, 30-24 and 24-30, 30-18).
Having won their last four games in a row since the deflating defeat at the hands of Pacific, the Anteaters had momentum on their side as they headed into this Mountain Pacific Sport Federation conference match-up against a Matadors’ team they had already beaten twice this season. In game one the Anteaters came out firing on all cylinders, establishing an early 8-1 lead behind a solo block and a kill from senior middle blocker David Smith. After a late Northridge run cut the lead to four at 23-19, senior outside hitter and co-captain Jayson Jablonsky fired a shot off the block of the Matador defense to push the lead back to five. The score would get no closer with UCI closing out game on a rocket from senior opposite hitter Matt Webber and winning the first game 30-25.
‘It’s always difficult to have to beat a team three times,’ said Head Coach John Speraw. ‘Coming off the road trip, the team had really gotten up for Santa Barbara so we had to come out and make sure to keep our intensity and our focus up.’
Game two seemed to be an exact repeat of game one as the Anteaters again jumped to an early lead and never looked back. While Webber anchored the offense with nine kills in game two alone, it was the balanced attack of freshman opposite Cole Reinholm and Jablonsky, as well as strong net play from middle blockers Smith and junior Aaron Harrell that led to the win.
Totaling six block assists in the game, Harrell and Smith, coupled with help from senior setter and fellow co-captain Brian Thorton stymied the Matador attack, not allowing them any clear lanes in which to hit. Thorton brought the crowd to its feet with a highlight reel play when he took an off-target pass and sent a one-handed set to Webber who promptly fired a kill down the line.
Webber would again close out the game, this time not even bothering to try and find an open spot in the Northridge defense, instead firing a shot right at a Matador defender who was helpless to dig it. The Anteaters won the second game 30-24.
While there were not many things good that could be said about Cal State Northridge on this night, game three proved to be its lone bright spot. After trailing for the entirety of the first two games, Northridge came out on fire in the third game and completely decimated UCI. Building a lead of 20-8, Northridge seemed as though it could do nothing wrong as it cruised for the victory.
If not for the play of Asuka, who totaled five digs in the game, and sophomore outside hitter Taylor Wilson, who came off the bench to provide some much needed punch, UCI would have lost by double digits.
As it was, Wilson was able to spark the UCI offense, sending the crowd to its feat when he sent a spike off the head of a Northridge defender that caromed all the way to the top level of seats. Northridge, however, would take the game and deny UCI the sweep.
Game four proved to be nothing more than a formality as UCI did not let the match go to a fifth game. Establishing an 11-7 lead, the Anteaters did not allow Northridge to get any closer and closed out the game and the match on a kill from Jablonsky to give the Anteaters the 30-18 win.
While the victory itself was sweet enough, a look at the stat line at the end of the game revealed an even more satisfying result. Though the totaling of seven service aces was a plus for the team as a whole, it was the digging of Brent Asuka that truly stood out. With nine, three, five and five digs respectively in each game, Asuka finished with 21 digs on the night, a figure that ranks second all-time in the UCI record books and first all-time in the rally scoring era.
‘I wasn’t really thinking about it during the game. I just was trying to do my job and help the team. We are getting better with each game and hopefully we can peak come playoff time,’ said Asuka on his career night.
Thornton finished with 52 assists while Jablonsky smashed 18 kills and Webber finished just behind him with 16 kills. Wilson had eight kills while Reinholm and Smith had seven kills apiece.
UCI had seven service aces and recorded eight total team blocks on the night.
The Anteaters currently sit in second place in the MPSF standings, behind the top seeded Pepperdine Waves with eight MPSF games remaining on the season.
Pepperdine beat the Anteaters earlier this season on Jan. 27 in a three-game sweep, giving UCI its first loss of the season.
The Anteaters will have a chance at redemption when they travel to Pepperdine on March 31. A convincing win will give the Anteaters an inside track on the No. 1 ranking just in time for the MPSF Finals and NCAA Championship in the beginning of May.
UCI will hope to continue with its winning streak on Wednesday, Feb. 28 when it hosts UC San Diego in a MPSF match at Crawford Hall at 7 p.m.