A Comeback for the Ages

Close games, roaring crowds and amazing comebacks. This is what the playoffs are all about.
As the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team hosted the University of Hawaii Warriors in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal match at Crawford Court on Saturday night, the electricity in the gym was palpable. Playing for a chance to advance to the semifinals, the Anteaters and Warriors knew the high stakes and they played a five-game thriller that saw Hawaii go up 2-0 on the host Anteaters, only to see UCI come charging back, rallying to take the last three games of the match and defeat Hawaii 3-2 (26-30, 27-30, 30-23, 30-22, 15-11) before a raucous sold out crowd.
With a packed Crawford Court and the playoff atmosphere permeating throughout the building, UCI came out and showed a few nerves in games one and two. With a large contingent of Warrior fans cheering them on, Hawaii played opportunistic volleyball, riding the arm of outside hitter Lauri Hakala and taking advantage of the Anteater miscues.
‘Coming into the game I was concerned with how we’d come out after last year’s postseason loss,’ said UCI Head Coach John Speraw. ‘Having played most of our games in the Bren Events Center, I knew there would be an adjustment coming into Crawford, especially for our serving game, and it showed.’
With Hawaii playing great, UCI did not help itself in the first two games, committing 14 service errors, 10 in game one alone, and hitting just .237. While game one was a back-and-forth match until Hawaii took a deciding 28-25 lead and finished it off 30-26, game two was not as close, with Hawaii taking a five-point lead at 22-17 and never relinquishing it, cruising to a 30-27 victory.
‘Even though we were down 2-0, we never panicked,’ said senior middle blocker David Smith. ‘We’d been in the same position earlier this year against Santa Barbara and we knew we could come back. We just needed to make our serves and get the crowd behind us. With Crawford being so compact, we could really feel the crowd’s energy once we got going.’
Knowing that their season was on the line, UCI came out and played with determination in game three, attacking the Hawaii defense with their two best offensive assets, senior opposite Matt Webber and senior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky, who recorded six and five kills, respectively, in game three alone.
Behind the offensive onslaught and an unrelenting service attack, UCI took control of the game, taking a 22-19 lead off of a diving dig from sophomore libero Brent Asuka, which led to a Jablonsky kill. UCI took control of the rest of the game, winning it 30-23 on a kill from junior middle blocker Aaron Harrell.
Game four would prove to be almost an exact replica of game three. UCI again used the offensive attack of Webber and Jablonsky to grab the early lead, only this time the Warriors would not be allowed to keep pace. Smith, Harrell, senior Brain Thornton and sophomore Taylor Wilson took control of the net, totaling eight block assists in the game. Coupling that with Hawaii’s sudden inability to stop any of the Anteaters’ attacks, UCI marched to a 14-9 lead and never looked back, taking the game 30-22 and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Getting to the fifth and deciding game, with the crowd behind them and momentum on its side, UCI came out and put to rest any ideas Hawaii had of stymieing the Anteater comeback. Behind an unstoppable Smith, who would total two blocks and five kills in the deciding fifth game alone, UCI jumped out to a 7-2 lead and held off a late Hawaii run, taking the game 15-11 and the match 3-2 on a Smith kill.
The five-game thriller saw four Anteaters record double-digit kills, with Jablonsky totaling a team-high 23 kills, followed by Webber with 18, Smith with a season-high 16 and Wilson with 12. Aaron Harrell pitched in six kills of his own as well as a team-high seven block assists. Libero Brent Asuka added 11 digs, matched also by Wilson for a personal season-high, and Thornton dished out 72 assists.
On the night, UCI committed 24 service errors, a noticeable improvement after the 10 in game one alone, and finished with nine service aces, Jablonsky leading the way with three.
UCI will travel to Pepperdine to take on the Cougars of Brigham Young University in the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament on Thursday, April 26 at 8 p.m.