Men’s Volleyball Outlast Waves in 5
In a match up between two of the nation’s top volleyball teams, serving, one of the most fundamental volleyball skills, proved to the be difference maker in No. 5 UC Irvine’s thrilling five set victory over No. 4 Pepperdine at the Bren, Saturday night.
UC Irvine men’s volleyball team often struggled to put the ball into play, committing a total of 17 service errors, yet managed to grind their way out into a 22-25, 25-18, 25-20, 18-25, 15-13 victory over the visiting Waves.
“We’re still trying to calibrate what our serve is that we can hit consistently,” said UCI Coach David Kniffin. “I think that’s the difference between a Major League pitcher and a Triple A pitcher, someone who knows what they can do, and is able to do it consistently.”
Though the accuracy of the Anteater’s aggressive serving wavered throughout the match, it did pay off with the team recording six aces to Pepperdine’s three.
“I think our serve is really good, we tend to miss a little bit higher than most teams, but we also go for it a lot more,” said senior, All-American Michael Brinkley.
Pepperdine, the pre-season favorite to win the MPSF, matched up well against the physicality of Coach Kniffin’s squad, registering 16 blocks against the Anteater’s 9.5. UC Irvine, the nation’s leader in hitting percentage with .349, held steady against the Wave’s frontcourt, powering through the evening with 66 kills to Pepperdine’s 56 in an effort that saw four Anteaters reach double-figures in kills.
“They are a little bit bigger than us and maybe even a little stronger, but what’s nice is that they’re comparable, so we actually played their style of volleyball,” said Coach Kniffin.
UC Irvine was led by its tandem of outside hitters, Tamir Hershko and Kyle Russell, whom with 18 kills apiece, accounted for over 50 percent of the Anteater’s 66 kills.
“It’s always fun to win,” said Hershko. “I’m glad we won and I think we played well against this team.”
Junior middle blocker Jason Agopian, who registered a career-high of 13 kills with a .579 hitting percentage, also had a team-high six block assists. Senior opposite Zack La Cavera, who leads the MPSF in points per set with 4.49, contributed 10 kills, two aces and six digs while second-year middle blocker, Andrew Benz tallied six kills and three block assists.
Russell, La Cavera and Michael Saeta, who racked up 49 assists, each chipped in two block assists. Brinkley’s All-American pedigree was on display as the senior charted a match-high of 15 digs alongside five assists.
Pepperdine was led by opposite Parker Kalmbach, who paced the match with 20 kills and Josh Taylor, who logged 18 kills and two aces. Together, the seniors accounted for 55 of the Wave’s total 75 points recorded over the course of the five-set affair.
“I think we matched up pretty well, we’re both pretty big teams,” said Brinkley. “Parker and Josh are both great players, we had some big guys that were able to slow them down a little bit, play off some blocks, get some balls and convert them.”
From the outset, UC Irvine committed two consecutive service errors in the opening points of the first set to keep the score tied 2-2 despite early kills by La Cavera and Russell. Pepperdine caught hold of a 7-4 lead and never trailed the rest of the way. The Anteaters finished the set with a total of six service errors.
La Cavera erased any memories of the Anteater’s serving woes by hitting back-to-back aces in the second set to give UCI a 7-1 lead. Pepperdine rallied off four straight to come within 7-5, but would get no closer for the remainder of the set. A backcourt violation gave UCI six match points at 24-18, and a kill by Benz the following point, clinched the set. UC Irvine limited its service errors to just two in the second, and a renewed Anteater attack swung for an impressive .462 hitting percentage, a marked improvement over the team’s .375 in the first.
UC Irvine trailed 3-5 in the third set, but consecutive kills by Hershko and La Cavera put-away pushed the Anteaters back into the lead. An off-balance dig by Hershko and a spectacular knuckle-set by Brinkley paved the way for an emphatic put-away by Russell at 8-6 and elicited an electrifying ovation from the home crowd. Behind the back of Russell’s five kills and Brinkley’s six digs in the third, the Anteaters outlasted the Waves 25-20.
UCI’s service woes resurged in fourth as Pepperdine was gifted five points off of Anteater faults. The Waves led 7-4 after two attack errors by the Anteaters and would hold a 4-5 point lead for the majority of the set. Pepperdine held UCI to an abysmal -.040 hitting percentage and posted two blocks in successive blocks in successive fashion to win the set 25-18.
In the fifth set, the Anteater’s managed to reset themselves and “Everytime, every point, it’s a new play,” said Herhsko.
Hershko and Russell totaled seven kills and two blocks assists to clinch the win for the Anteaters. UCI led by as much as 8-4 before Pepperdine came within one at 7-8, but the Anteaters pulled away with a Benz kill, a block by Hershko and Benz, to go up 10-8. A triumvirate of kills of Herhsko and a cross-court put away by La Cavera put the Anteaters in a commanding 14-10 lead with quadruple match point. Pepperdine won the next three points to pull within 14-13 much to the dismay of the standing home crowd, but fittingly enough a service error ended the Waves’ hopes for a comeback.
“It’s one of the most important things for us to get points from the service line, so I think once the guys started to make their serves, it made our lives much easier,” said Hershko.
UC Irvine stabilized their serving and committed only one service error in the fifth set.
“In the fourth set, I think our serve kind of got let down a little bit and that’s what got us all the points, so once we got our serve back in the fifth I think we knew we were gonna be good,” added Brinkley.
With the victory, UCI moves into a three-way tie atop the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference with USC and BYU, each team boasting a 8-2 record in the MPSF.
“I thought (our mental maturity was) good, we just played what I think is one of the top four teams in the conference, and despite little runs and mistakes is how we respond to those mistakes,” said UCI Coach David Kniffin.
UC Irvine will travel to Palo Alto next Friday for a 7 p.m. match against Stanford.