No. 5 UC Irvine downed Stanford with a 3-0 sweep on Friday to improve to 19-6 overall and 16-6 in conference.
Stanford 0, UCI 3
The UCI men’s volleyball team appeared to be back in its groove Friday night during its match against Stanford, finishing each set with a comfortable five-point lead to clinch a 3-0 victory over the Cardinals. After the ’Eaters’ slump stretching throughout the last six games, it was refreshing to see the volleyball team focused and ready to claim a victory. Outside hitter Kyle Russell had a career-high night to lead the ’Eaters with 14 kills. Sophomore Zack La Cavera totaled seven kills, six digs and three aces.
The first match started off shaky as UCI appeared frustrated when Stanford was first to get points on the board. However, the ’Eaters decided enough was enough, and changed their attitude on the court with a beautiful serve by La Cavera that was the first of many aces that night. After four aces in succession and a kill, the Antourage started chanting “Zack Attack” for the opposite hitter each time he was up for a serve. This streak led to the taking the match, and eventually the game. Irvine clinched the first set 25-20.
In the second match, UCI came back cool and collected. Fourth-year Kevin Tillie contributed seven kills and an ace that got the ’Eaters on the feet with a 5-2 lead on Stanford. UCI’s on-point assists by its setters gave the ’Eaters an advantage over the Cardinals. Each play was artfully executed on UCI’s part, and spectators could really see the team clicking on the court. The set ended with UCI ahead 25-20.
The third and final match was the most exciting by far, as judged by Antourage’s energy. There were several disputed calls that ended in the ’Eaters’ favor. The ’Eaters began to lose focus as Stanford creeped to within a point as UCI held onto an 11-10 lead. After a team huddle that ended in middle blocker Ian Castellana doing a “Breakfast Club”-esque fist in the air, the ’Eaters got back to business. Several plays by Russell ended in kills, with Tillie making serves that Stanford players failed to put in play.
The score was 16-12, and La Cavera knew what was expected of him after countless serves and kills. He stepped up to serve and, when asked what he thought during those last serves, he just said that he repeats to himself, “You’re in control.” And he was, delivering powerful serves, rightfully earning the nickname “Zack Attack.” A fresh-faced second year, Travis Woloson added two more points to the board as he entered the match. Irvine successfully ended the match at 25-19 to secure the set and the sweep.
When asked what has changed for the ’Eaters post the six game slump, setter Chris Austin responded, “We are taking on the mentality of the underdog,” as he stretched out on the court after the match.
“Now we have something to prove with each game,” he continued.
The ’Eaters are out to show the volleyball world that they are still a force to be reckoned with, despite falling from its previous No. 1 spot in the rankings to No. 5. When it appeared that Irvine expressed an energy that had been previously lacking, Austin clarified that it was “all business.”
Russell was all smiles after the game and extremely excited about his personal best 14 kills. While Friday night marked just the third full game that Russell had the opportunity to play, he impressed both fans and teammates. His mentality on the court is to stay relaxed and to just come out and play Irvine ball.
When Tillie was asked what he thought the big change was in the team’s chemistry on Friday, he responded saying that the energy is always up and down, and that the rankings didn’t matter to them. It was about who was ready to battle on the court. He felt that the team was almost feeling too much pressure and had forgotten to simply “just play ball.” Tillie commented on their new focus during the game, saying that is simply stemmed from the team knowing what they had to do.
Tillie’s game day mentality is to “enjoy the game, but focus on beating the team, […] don’t even let them hope they have a chance to win. Don’t let them even hope.”
This spirit-crushing mantra may have helped lead the ’Eaters to their victory over Stanford.
La Cavera commented on the benefit of the new players bringing in new energy to the team. “Last game we just had a bad connection, our desire had changed,” said the 6-feet-4-inches tall opposite as he smiled and shook the hand of a passing fan congratulating him on his beautiful serving and seven kills. “No matter what, just trust the team and trust the system. Just remind yourself the game is point by point. Take it one at a time and it is easier to focus. Keeping the main goal in mind to just stay dominate.”
Head Coach David Kniffin was pleased with his team’s performance, noting the big change in chemistry and connection of the team members. He accredited it to the fact that the players have finally been able to “just play and do what they do.”
“The team is finally playing free and fearless. They have something to prove,” Kniffin said.
Kniffin also commented on the team’s progress, divulging that he is impressed. Calling UC Irvine a “blue collar institution,” he explained that all of the players have the potential and the ability to win, but achieve it with fewer resources. The coach attributed the team’s success to the players’ ability to have faith and trust in themselves and in each other.
Asked to comment on the team’s recent struggle he said, “I just let that run. It was good to have them bottom out and then build back up like they did tonight.”
Pleased with his team’s depth, Kniffin continued, “We are the best because regardless of the person we put in, we know we can compete. It is a huge advantage.”