No. 5 USC Trumps No. 3 UCI in Five-Set Thriller
UCI 2 USC 3
In a marquee Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) matchup featuring two volleyball heavyweights, No. 5 USC emerged victorious over No. 3 UC Irvine in a five set blockbuster, finishing 28-30, 25-17, 21-25, 25-23, 15-13 to remain undefeated for the season in front of 1,395 fans at the Bren Events Center Friday night.
With the win, the Trojans improve to an overall record of 5-0 and 4-0 in conference play. The Anteaters, who were riding a six-game winning streak into Friday’s game, drop to 6-2 and 2-1 in the MPSF.
USC senior setter Micah Christenson, an All-American standout, was a decisive factor in the Trojan’s victory, recording a match high 52 assists, 15 digs and five block assists. Junior opposite Josh Kirchner led the cardinal and gold with 15 kills, alongside six digs, three blocks and two aces. Redshirt sophomore outside Chris Orenic recorded a double-double with 14 kills and 10 digs. Senior middle blocker Robert Feathers shot a match-best .647 for 12 kills, logging only one attack error in 17 attempts.
UC Irvine senior opposite Zack La Cavera led the Anteaters with a career high 21 kills, while sophomore outside Tamir Hershko 17 kills and seven digs. Junior middle blocker Jason Agopian contributed 10 kills while shooting for .562, closely followed by sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz who hit .556 with six kills and five blocks. Senior libero Michael Brinkley, an All-American as well, led UCI with 12 dig. Junior outside Kyle Russell had 11 digs and five aces, but struggled throughout the night, committing seven attack errors on 23 attempts to finish with -.087 hitting.
USC finishing the night with a .305 hitting percentage, edging out UC Irvine’s .261. The Anteaters had 49 digs to the Trojan’s 45, and led in service aces 7-5. UCI’s failure to execute on certain points throughout the night would be their undoing, as the team was plagued by 22 service errors to the Trojan’s 17 and 25 attack errors to the Trojan’s 20.
“It came down to execution on our side,” said UCI’s head coach David Kniffin. “The nice thing about this team that we have right now is we’re very mentally steady. So the mistakes we were making I didn’t feel like were necessarily mental errors, so much as just execution errors. Part of that comes having a bunch of guys [that] A, haven’t been starters since the week before, and B, haven’t had a chance to practice on the court because we’ve had such a game-intense month so far. I thought we showed some good stuff tonight and we definitely learned some things.”
The first set was a largely back and forth affair, until a double block by Christensen and Andy Benesh put the Trojans ahead 18-16. A pair of kills by La Cavera tied the score at 18-18 all, but the Trojans would break away to hold double match-point at 24-22. Benz would dig the Anteaters out of the hole with a kill and block alongside Michael Saeta to force another tie at 24-24. After more back and forth action, two consecutive kills by Hershko gave the Anteaters the first set at 30-28.
USC jumped out to a 6-2 lead in the second set and never relinquished the lead, winning the set 25-17. The Anteaters proved to be their own undoing, shooting a dismal .120 after hitting .436 in the first.
In the third set the home team would turn the tables on their visitors, as the Anteaters opened with a 12-6 lead, never letting the Trojans catch up as they coasted to a 25-21 win. USC nearly crept back into the game at 20-23 after a service ace by feathers, prompting a time out by UCI. However two service errors would prove fatal and give the Anteaters a 2-1 set lead.
After a shaky start in the fourth set, the Trojans distanced themselves from the Anteaters at 13-13 with a 4-0 run to go up 17-13. UC Irvine rallied back and nearly overtook the Trojans, coming within 1 at 23-24, but an untimely service error sealed the set for USC.
UC Irvine seemed poised to take the decisive set after taking what looked to be an insurmountable lead at 7-2 off a solo block by Russell. USC came roaring back with four straight points capped by a double block by Feathers and Larry Tuileta to pull themselves back into the game, eventually overtaking the Anteaters 13-11. A kill by Benz and a hitting error tied the set at 13-13, but the Trojans mustered off two consecutive blocks to stifle Anteater attack and take sole possession of the lead in the MPSF Conference.
“I think as a team we could’ve stuck to our game plan a little more,” said Saeta. “We did a pretty good job blocking, and that was okay, but from the service line, we’re such an aggressive team. We can be aggressive and just attribute ourselves to our skills. We can really take teams out of system and that’s how we can win matches. There’s always a bunch of little things and we just need to execute a little bit better and we’re there.”
UCI 3 CBU 0
Following their loss to USC, UC Irvine traveled to Riverside the next evening to face off against a familiar foe in Cal Baptist University, defeating the Lancers by a score of 3-0, with set scores of 25-17, 25-18, 25-16 in the Van Dyne Gym Saturday night.
The team boasted a career night with a season-high 11 aces, with Hershko serving up four on his own. Russell was at the forefront of the Anteater offensive with 11 kills, while opposites La Cavera and Hershko recorded 10 and seven kills respectively. Benz registered an outstanding .875 on an errorless night, hitting seven kills on eight attempts. Sophomore Dillon Hoffman started as libero for the night, and recorded a career-high seven digs for the evening.
UC Irvine out-dug CBU 19 digs to 15, and shot for .362 while holding the Lancers down to a .133 clip.
UC Irvine rushed to an early lead in the first set, courtesy of a pair of kills by La Cavera and an ace by Russell to go up 8-5. The ‘Eaters never trailed, finishing the set 25-17.
CBU held their own in the second, leading 17-14, until the Anteaters exploded on an unprecedented 11-1 run to end the set 25-18. The Lancers finished the sit with a .056 hitting percentage.
In the final set, the Anteaters shot for .444 and took the set 25-16 to close out the series.
The men’s volleyball team resumes play next Wednesday, where they host Hawai’i twice within the span of three days before traveling to La Jolla to take on the UC San Diego Tritons.