Sitting on a pedestal can sometimes mean one thing: falling off. The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team felt the carpet being swept out from under its run at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference Championship Semifinal Thursday night.
After beating the University of Southern California in 11 meetings, the Anteaters were left looking at a Trojan celebration after the team swept the ‘Eaters in three straight games, 30-25, 30-25, 30-27.
“We’ve beaten them three or four times in a row and they had nothing to lose and served like it,” said Coach John Speraw. “I cannot recall a team serving that good. They served up 12 aces and only six errors. We did well on offense [but] when their best player hit .600, there is really nothing you can do.”
The ‘Eaters were unable to answer the onslaught of exceptional serving by USC, and when they got a hand on the ball, UCI passing game was one of its worst they had all season. At the start of the match, USC jumped out to 6-1 on some heavy serves by one of the team’s best players, Murphy Troy. The Anteaters were unable to get something going in that first set until late, when after being down 11-15 they were able to pull it together and tie it at 20-20.
But it was not enough.
The Trojans were not to be stopped on this fateful night. From the first game to the third, it appeared that every time they put up a good set, they found a way to get the ball to drop their way. After going on a 9-4 run, the Trojans won the first set, 30-25.
The second set was more of the same. With the momentum of some unmatched serving, the Trojans garnered a big lead early at 13-8 and were, just like in the first set, not giving any signs that they were going to let that go. When the match reached 26-21 in favor of USC, the ‘Eaters looked defeated once again and it would have taken an unbelievable run to get back into the set and tie the match at 1-1.
But for a second, it looked like Irvine found the guy to do it.
Freshman Carson Clark went back to the line, and with an ominous look of determination, fired not one, but two aces on the Trojan defense, bringing the set back within reach at 26-23. But Clark was unable to do it himself. On the next serve, he pounded one into the net for a service error and the glimmer of hope was gone. USC went on to win game two, 30-25, and went up in the match 2-0.
“It was really about just not doing enough on defense,” Coach Speraw said. “When you are hitting above .400 [and] you are getting your butts kicked, that means you are doing something wrong on defense.”
Throughout the first two sets, it was clear that USC had something to prove, not only to Irvine but to themselves. The desire and will to win was clearly more evident on the Trojan side, and the entire lineup for the Trojans played clean volleyball with a reduced number of errors compared to previous matches against Irvine.
But the third set unfolded with Irvine now in need of proving something. From there on out, they needed to play flawless volleyball in order to come back and win the match. It was imperative that they soak in the solid serving of USC and turn some passes into points.
The Anteaters jumped into the third set with new vibrancy as senior Nick Spittle came in as a libero to spark some defense. It worked. For the first time in the match, UCI had control of the momentum into the late points of the set. However, USC never allowed the Anteaters to get far enough ahead to cruise into a game three victory.
Irvine lead the Trojans at 25-24, when the dominating tone that USC set earlier in the match took over for the final time. USC went on a 6-2 run that featured an ace and zero hitting errors to win the third match, 30-27, and win the match in three straight games.
To the credit of UCI, the team hit the ball an impressive .462, but were catching no breaks at the nets. This was its worst blocking performance of the season, and not because they were not at the net to stop the Trojans, but because they simply could not keep the blocks in bounds.
And that theme of nothing going their way plagued the Anteaters all the way through to the third set. At one point toward the end of that set, UCI dug two big hits by USC that went back over the net, then blocked another hit that was picked up by USC, who then set another try and got the tip off the hands of the Anteaters that flailed out of bounds, USC allowing USC to get the point.
Those were the kind of breaks the Trojans were rolling with all night.
This was only the fourth loss of the season for the Anteaters. With this loss, UCI was knocked out of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference Tournament.
Nevertheless, UCI was selected as the first seed in the NCAA Final Four this weekend in Provo, Utah. UCI takes on fourth seed Ohio State on Thursday at 8 p.m. on ESPNU. Second seed Penn State takes on third seed USC earlier Thursday in the second semifinal match. The final will be telivised at 4 p.m. Saturday.