Anteaters Post Back-to-Back Wins Over UCLA, UCSB
Michael Brinkley’s defensive pedigree was on full display Saturday night, as the two-time All American libero dazzled the audience with several acrobatic digs during No. 3 UC Irvine men’s volleyball (16-3, 11-2 MPSF) sweep over No. 9 UC Santa Barbara, 25-21, 31-29, 25-18.
Whether he had to run through the press box or a row of courtside seats, Brinkley could not be stopped from keeping the ball in play en route to a match-high 12 digs, continuously bringing the home crowd of 1062 at the Bren to their feet.
“All that’s going through my mind is ‘Don’t stop for anything,’” said Brinkley. “Cause whatever it is, you’ll be fine afterwards — you just have to get the ball and keep playing.”
That sentiment has clearly carried over to Brinkley’s teammates as well, as the Anteaters have been running through their competition, winning their last seven matches to go undefeated throughout the month of February.
“I think we’re competing well, starting to play with some poise. You don’t need much more of an example than [Brinkley] crashing through a row of chairs to save a ball,” said UCI head coach David Kniffin. “Regardless of how that rally turns out, the fact that we got the point is great. It’s the effort point-to-point that is starting to make this team come together.”
Prior to Saturday night’s game, the team sent a strong message to No. 9 UCLA, firing an impressive nine aces to the Bruin’s two. It was a bittersweet homecoming for former UCI men’s volleyball head coach John Speraw, who led the program to three national titles during his time as an Anteater.
“I love it here, because this is our house, and [Speraw] was a great coach, he gave a lot to the program, and I definitely respect him as a peer, but this is our house and it’s always special having him come home.” said Kniffin.
Coming off the high of their victory before, the Anteaters had little time to celebrate before resetting for the Gauchos, who had impressed in the week prior, sweeping then No. 3 USC and Cal Baptist. John
“The conversation we had in the locker room before we hit the court tonight was that, this is like being in the playoffs because you play one great team and you gotta make it through them, and then you gotta play another match that counts right away.” said Coach Kniffin.
UC Irvine’s blocking game was in full force against UC Santa Barbara, as the Anteaters held the Gauchos to a .143 hitting percentage with a season-high 14.5 blocks.
Both teams were neck-and-neck throughout the first set, until a double block by sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz and senior opposite Zack La Cavera kicked off a 3-0 run to give UCI a 11-9 edge. UC Irvine would not trail again, and claimed the set 25-21 off of a ball handling error by UC Santa Barbara.
In the second set, the Anteaters looked to be in dire straits with the Gauchos holding a commanding 24-21 lead. UC Irvine survived the first match point with a kill by senior outside hitter Travis Woloson, while a solo block by Benz the following point shaved off another. A Gaucho attack error tied the score 24-24, upon which both teams traded points until consecutive kills by sophomore opposite Tamir Hershko and junior outside hitter Kyle Russell clinched the comeback for the Anteaters 31-29.
“Travis Woloson came in and just provided that spark and that steady arm that we needed to get us out of some jams,” said Coach Kniffin. “He’s a fifth-year senior, he’s earned the right to be there in that moment, and he desires that moment. He wants to carry the weight, and we rallied behind that. It’s a different guy every night that does that for us, and tonight it was him.”
Coach Kniffin’s volleyball team is no stranger to coming back from large deficits, as the 2013 national championship team won five straight points after being down 24-21 as well in the third set to defeat BYU in the final.
“It’s one point at a time, that’s really how you have to look at it,” said Brinkley. “You can’t look at it like you’re down 21-24, you have to look at it like it’s another point, it’s just one more point that you have to win, and then you reset your mindset.”
UC Irvine never struggled in the third set, and took a 6-1 lead from the outset off of five UCSB attack errors, with two of them prompted by blocks. The Anteaters cruised to 25-18 victory in the third after a Gaucho service error at match point. UCSB hit for a dismal 0.00 (8-8-24) while UCI was a deadly .500 (14-3-22).
Hershko led the Anteaters with a team-high 12 kills, while La Cavera posted eight kills and six blocks. Junior middle blocker Jason Agopian recorded seven kills and a match-high seven blocks, while sophomore setter Michael Saeta finished with 40 set assists as he guided the Anteaters to a .433 hitting percentage.
With the victory, the Anteaters now stand alone at the top of the MPSF conference standings in first place. UC Irvine will put their seven-match winning streak on the line when they travel to No. 7 USC Tuesday, March 3rd, at the Galen Center.
Following Tuesday’s rematch against the Trojans, the Anteaters will return home at the Bren Friday night to host Ball State.