Still Sitting at the Top Spot

File Photo

File Photo
Austin D’Amore elevates for a smash into the opposing team’s defense. Irvine is ranked first in the nation.

30-24, 20-30, 30-18, 30-28

With the conference championships only three weeks away and the Anteaters in the top spot of the national rankings, there was a small cloud of pressure hanging above the men’s volleyball team last week as they traveled to Brigham Young University for a two-game set.

That pressure was unfortunately replaced with complacency in the team’s first match of the set.

With the BYU faithful giving the squad a wholesome earful of chatter throughout the match, Irvine was never able to get into its typical groove at the net. The Anteaters were out-hit and out-blocked in Thursday’s match as they lost in four sets, 30-24, 20-30, 30-18, 30-28.

“Traveling to BYU is the hardest thing to do in our conference as far road matches go,” said Coach John Speraw. “We just seemed to allow our mistakes to snowball into more mistakes because we were getting furstrated.”

The Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah is notorious for giving visiting teams trouble with its hitting and serving in the early parts of the matches because of the altitude.

This distraction seemed to plague the Anteaters (14-3, 14-4) throughout the first match. Normally the fourth-best hitting team in the country, Irvine hit an alarmingly low .185 in the match.

One thing that the Anteaters did not lose on the flight to Provo was their ability to block at the net. Even though they were out-blocked on the night, Irvine won the second set behind a strong stand at the net as it out-blocked the Cougars 8-1 in the second set.

The Anteaters had a major problem blocking three BYU offensive leaders; Andrew Stewart, Kent Tuttle and Futi Tavana combined for 34 kills in the set.

A stat leader for Irvine was without a doubt senior libero Brent Asuka, who scooped up a match-high 13 kills for the Anteaters on defense. On the offensive side, freshman Carson Clark added to his impressive first-season productivity charts with 14 kills. At the net, sophomore Kevin Wynne put together a good night of hitting with no errors on six kills in nine attempts.

The bench played a heavy role throughout the match but it was Cory Yoder and Cole Reinholm who helped the most, each slamming in six kills.

However, the bench effort was simply not enough to overcome the shaky hitting of the Anteaters. This was the first loss for the Anteaters in eight matches and puts them in a critical position that forces a finish to a thus far successful season, formerly void of any mistakes.

“I hope this match was a bit of a wake up call for the guys.” Speraw said.

30-28, 26-30, 30-27, 30-27

With a night of mistakes and mis-hits now under its belt, Irvine had the chance to redeem its loss against BYU in the two-game set on Friday last week.

Fortunately for the Anteaters, the only asset the Cougars brought to the match was their home-court advantage.

In front of 3,878 fans at the Smith Fieldhouse, Irvine put together a courageous effort that silenced the arena after a four-set win, 30-28, 26-30, 30-27, 30-27.

The win improves the Anteater record to 20-4 overall but more importantly 15-3 in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) play. A loss on Friday would have given BYU the series sweep and jeopardized the Anteaters’ ability to get the top spot for the conference championships.

But thanks to a jolt of momentum in the fourth set, that problem has been shelved for the moment.

Senior Taylor Wilson was the catalyst of that momentum in a crucial fourth set that saw Irvine go on a 10-2 run.

Coming off the bench, Wilson nailed a kill when the Cougars lead by five, making it 20-24. Wilson then went back to the service line and spurred a 6-point run by the Anteaters.

BYU simply lost all momentum and hit into the blocks of Irvine’s wall at the net 3 points in a row as Irvine cut the lead to 1 point, 23-24.

Wilson then added the tying kill that set up a huge kill by senior Ryan Ammerman, which gave Irvine the lead at 25-24. After 4 more points by Irvine and 3 by the Cougars, the Anteaters had set point at 29-27.

And “Mister Fourth Set” Wilson imposed his will on the other team as he ended the match on a kill off the blocks.

“Unlike [Thursday night], we served the ball on the court a little more which made it easier for us to play well,” Speraw said. “But what we did better [Friday] was to not allow our mistakes to get us frustrated and hinder our overall game.”

Freshman Carson Clark led the Anteater attack with 21 kills as sophomore Jordan DuFault followed with 11 kills and a career-high 13 digs. Ammerman finished the night with 57 assists and four blocks at the net.

“We still feel like we are in a position to win the MPSF and to hopefully host a first round match in the conference championship. But we understand that our matches against USC and Pepperdine are going to be really tough. At the moment, we need to just focus on USC though,” Speraw said.

The Anteaters will face their two toughest matches in the last stretch of the season this week against USC and Pepperdine. Join the Anteater faithful at the tailgate party for Wednesday’s match against USC at the Bren Events Center. The two teams’ previous match went to five games and it is anticipated to be another tough match the top ranked Anteater squad.