Let’s go back to May 4, 2013, one of the proudest days in Anteater history; the day UC Irvine’s men’s volleyball team beat Brigham Young University (BYU) in three sets at the National Championships at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. This was the second consecutive year, and the fourth time in the past seven years that the men’s volleyball team claimed the NCAA title.
On Friday, Jan. 17, UCI hosted the BYU Cougars at the Bren Events Center, for a rematch of last year’s NCAA championship. Being the team’s first home game of the season, and facing their biggest rival, the Bren was packed with cheering Anteaters and BYU fans as well. A total crowd of 2,793 kept the floors of the Bren shaking throughout the match.
The Anteaters were of course led by their second-year head coach, David Kniffin, who during his first year as head coach, led the ’Eaters to their national victory. Kniffin played a strong line-up, including two freshmen Tamir Hershko at opposite, and Michael Saeta as setter. Hersko recorded a career-high 25 kills and four blocks as Saeta recorded a career-best 50 set assists and seven digs. Senior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno marked a season-high 16 kills, eight digs and three total blocks, while outside hitter Travis Woloson recorded his career-best of nine kills and eight digs. Senior middle blocker Collin Mehring totaled nine kills and a game-best of six block assists. Junior Libero Michael Brinkley marked a season-best 18 digs, as senior middle blocker Scott Kevorken recorded five kills and four total blocks during the match.
In a post-game interview, Kniffin discussed his lineup decision-making process, and how his formation was decided not too long after the team began practices.
“When it comes down to the last second, when it is really happening in a match, we have to decide if we are going to stick with what we said we were going to do. And we have. I think that’s just the right move,” Kniffin explained. “We set a course on how we were going to play in January and we’re sticking to it. We’re just not winning the matches we hoped we would win,” he continued.
The Anteaters started the match strong, claiming the first set 25-15, hitting .286, while BYU hit 0.80, their lowest percentage throughout the season. The second set, specifically, could be defined by one word- intense. The ’Eaters led the set 17-12 but the Cougars caught up soon after tying the score at 17 even. The crowd was wild throughout the set as the ’Eaters and the Cougars altered as the set’s leading team. BYU stepped up its game, claiming the set 32-34, hitting .271 from .080, while UCI hit.191
Two kills by Hershko and a block by Mehring and Woloson would lead the ’Eaters 20-18 in the third set, following the 18-18 tie. An ace by Mehring marked the winning set for the ’Eaters at 25-21.
The Cougars claimed the fourth set, 18-25 with a significant hit percentage increase of .591, the highest of the game. The Anteaters also recorded their highest hitting percentage of the match with .409 UCI played strong defense during the set marking 11 blocks, BYU blocking eight. The Cougars’ set victory forced the match into a fifth set. UCI fell behind at the start of the final set as BYU led 2-0. A block by Mehring and Djeno caught the ’Eaters up, tying the score at 2-2. BYU maintained the lead with the ’Eaters down 12-13. Connor Hughes, who was named NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player last year, went in for the Anteaters’ final serve of the match. Two final kills that followed by the Cougars marked their winning set 15-12, ending the match 3-2.
“I [was] pretty encouraged by our fight tonight. I thought that was the best we have actually battled,” Kniffin said. “I don’t know if the execution was there, but I think that is something that will come over time.”
The Anteaters returned to the Bren the following day, on Saturday, Jan. 18, to take on Cal Baptist. The No. 7 UC Irvine played intense offence, hitting .514 and winning the match 3-0 victory (25-21, 25-16, 25-13).
UC Irvine’s men’s volleyball team is truly incredible. The magic this team is capable of is indescribable. The heart, focus, teamwork, and drive of this team is surely to lead them through a successful season. The men’s volleyball team currently stands at a 4-4 overall, and 1-3 in MPSF conference play. The ’Eaters are to travel to Santa Barbara next Saturday, Jan. 25 to take on the Gauchos.