UCI Men’s Volleyball: Your Time to Peak is Now, Step it Up

It is not how you start, but how you finish. Now is the best time to apply this old saying to the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team.

Forget about the opening loss to NAIA school, Cal Baptist. Forget about the disappointing home opening loss to Mountain Pacific Sports Federation bottom dweller UC San Diego, and forget about the embarrassing 3-0 loss at the hands of the UCLA Bruins. All of these surprising setbacks can be erased in the next two weeks.

The Anteaters will close out the 2011 regular season with three road games against MPSF opponents Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge and UC San Diego. The ’Eaters have already defeated the 49ers and Matadors, so if they can do it once, they can certainly do it again.

In the season finale, the Anteaters will face the Tritons of UCSD. In this match the Anteaters’ pride will be on the line because in the disappointing four-set loss that opened up the home schedule, the Tritons waltzed into the Bren Events Center and made a mockery out of the ’Eaters.

It is imperative for the Anteaters to win these last three matches, not just for the sake of winning and not because UCI has a good chance to win all three games. Instead these last contests are important because the Anteaters would enter the MPSF playoffs on a six-game winning streak, which would give a world of confidence to any team. More importantly, UCI could potentially earn the fourth seed in the MPSF, which means the Anteaters would host the quarterfinals and avoid traveling to USC, BYU or Stanford in the first round.

UC Irvine has the offense to finish the season on a high note and compete with the big boys of the MPSF. The Anteaters rank second in the conference in hitting percentage, kills and service aces, and rank third in assists. Junior Carson Clark, UCI’s workhorse, ranks second in kills and Anthony Spittle’s 11.38 assists per game rank third in the conference.

If the Anteaters are expected to make a deep postseason run, take down USC, Stanford and BYU and reach the Final Four, then it’s the defense that’s going to have to step up.

Their blocking and opponent’s hitting percentage rank near the bottom of the MPSF. UCI’s 8.23 digs per set are middle of the pack.

If the Anteaters win the MPSF championship it will be because two aspects of the Anteaters’ game are firing on all cylinders — their defense and service.

When the ’Eaters won four straight games in mid-February, their longest win streak of the season, in a stretch of winning six of seven matches, it was because of their defense. In that seven-game span, the ’Eaters held their opponents to a .326 hitting percentage or lower in five of those matches. UCI’s middle blockers were playing their best volleyball and not allowing the opposition to freely attack the back line.

In order for the ’Eaters’ defense to excel, the responsibility will have to fall on the middle blockers, UCI’s deepest position. When the defense has been on its game, it has been because two middle blockers have stepped up, whether it was Kevin Carroll, Scott Kevorken, Dan McDonnell or Kevin Wynne. When the defense has floundered it is because head coach John Speraw struggled to find two consistent middle blockers.

More often than not, UCI lives and dies on the service line. At times, the Anteaters have shown the ability to be deadly accurate with their service, and when they do this it fires up the offense and defense. This was evident on March 30, when they hit 10 aces against the Bruins, which led to a .356 hitting percentage for the ’Eaters. They held UCLA to a hitting percentage of .200 in sets three and four. But their biggest strength can sometimes be their biggest weakness. There are times when UCI gives too many points away from the service line. If the Anteaters can keep their service errors to 15 or less, then they should be a tough out come playoff time.

In any sport, the most dangerous teams are those with a unique blend of youth and experience — and the Anteaters have this. Scott Kevorken, a freshman out of Westlake Village, has been the most consistent middle blocker, while Wisconsin native Jeremy Dejno has shown flashes of greatness. Clark, Spittle, Cory Yoder and Jordan DuFault are some of the most experienced players on the team, and they know what it takes to win a championship, as they were all part of the 2009 team that won the national title.

There is no doubt that USC is the team to beat, as the Trojans have only lost one match and have swept 11 of their 19 contests. Stanford and BYU also pose great challenges to the Anteaters, but it’s tournament time, which means it’s anyone’s game. One bad day for the Trojans, Cardinal or Cougars means an early exit from the MPSF Tournament.

If the Anteaters enter the MPSF on a six-game win streak, their defense and service comes through, and their freshmen show their flashes of brilliance, the Anteaters will certainly raise eyebrows and shock some teams — but only time will tell if the stars align for UCI.