With their sights set on a national championship, UC Irvine men’s volleyball team picked up another pair of wins in the past week, defeating No. 3 USC and No. 12 Ball State University.
Despite having now won nine straight games, the Anteaters are too focused upon continually improving — both collectively and individually — to notice. Such a sentiment was made clear by head Coach David Kniffin last Tuesday, following the team’s 3-2 (20-25, 18-25, 25-19, 25-17, 15-13) come-from-behind victory against USC on the road.
“To come back from (being) down 0-2 shows maturity. Real maturity would be to not get down 0-2 in the first place,” said Coach Kniffin.
After closely dropping the first set and being held to a .179 hitting percentage in the second, the Anteaters rebounded with a more balanced attack, hitting .538 to take the third 25-19. Senior opposite Zack La Cavera and sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz shone in the third, hitting .778 (7-0-9) and .800 (4-0-5) respectively.
In the fourth set, the Anteaters looked to senior outside hitter Travis Woloson to inject the line up with some steady hitting and serving off the bench. An ace by La Cavera and Woloson propelled the Anteaters to a 10-5, which the Anteaters extended to 14-8. Building upon their momentum from the third set, UC Irvine hit an astounding .700 (15-1-20) to close out the set 25-17.
La Cavera pushed the Anteaters to a 5-3 lead with four consecutive kills in the fifth set before the Trojans won four straight to pull ahead 7-5. A kill by Benz stopped the bleeding, while a block by Woloson tied the game 7-7. A pair of Trojan attack errors helped the Anteaters break away to triple match point at 14-11. USC fended off two match points before La Cavera put the ball away to pull off the comeback, 15-13.
According to Coach Kniffin, the team’s improved performance was a matter of reminding his players of their ultimate end goal.
“Regardless of the outcome of a match in March, because a March match isn’t going to determine whether you can win a championship or not, it’s about defining what your character is. So when we’re getting smashed in set 2, the question is not, ‘Can we win or can we lose?’ It’s ‘How do we want to be known as competitors?’”
Woloson, who finished the night with six kills and digs, saw the night’s win as an experience that will only serve to contribute to the growth of the team down the line.
“I think anytime (we’re down), that’s where the learning is going to be for us,” said Woloson. “You’re not going to get any better if you’re winning every game by a ton.”
The team’s ability to focus competitively would be tested only three days later, when the Anteaters returned to the Bren to sweep Ball State, 25-16, 30-28 and 25-18. Prior to the start of the match, Bob Newcomb was remembered with his grandson hitting a first serve in his honor.
After cruising to a 25-16 victory in the first set in which they held Ball State to -.033 hitting, the Anteaters unexpectedly struggled in the second, needing seven set points to put away the Cardinal 30-28. UC Irvine led 24-22 off of a kill by sophomore opposite Tamir Hershko, but Ball State caught up and traded points before kills by sophomore setter Michael Saeta and La Cavera clinched the set.
“The danger in these matches is that, we come in against an opponent we feel pretty confident that we can take care of and so it has a potential to be a trap match, because we feel like we can out volleyball them,” said Coach Kniffin. “But the variable in sport is always who’s going to work harder and who’s going to compete, so it was nice to get a little bit of a wake up call.”
A kill by Hershko put the Anteaters up 5-1 in the third, but the Cardinal reeled off five straight kills to lead 6-5. Two back-to-back errors by Ball State gave the lead back to UCI, who never trailed for the remainder of the set en route to a 25-18 victory for the clean sweep.
UC Irvine shot for .417 as a team, with Hershko leading the Anteaters with 13 kills, followed by La Cavera with 12. Middle blockers Benz and Agopian were errorless, respectively tallying nine and six kills. Sophomore setter Michael Saeta had match highs with 39 assists and nine digs alongside three total blocks.
Saeta, who earned the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Week award two weeks prior after guiding the Anteaters to wins over No. 9 UCLA and No. 8 UCSB, had two match highs with 39 assists and nine digs to go alongside three total blocks.
“We have an end goal, and we’re not going to stop until we achieve that end goal, and that’s winning a championship this year,” said Saeta. “So, if you really want to make that (as a) serious consideration, you can’t leave anything for chance, you can’t leave practices that you aren’t taking advantage of. You’ve got to really utilize every chance you can, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Though the Anteaters have now won nine straight, a tally in the win column is less important than the team’s overall growth in the eyes of Coach Kniffin.
“To steal a term, we’re pretty growth-minded as a team, I don’t think we’re so fixated on a single result that we forego the process of getting better,” said Coach Kniffin. “And that’s the university life, we’re here, not only studying, but competing because we’re curious individuals. We want to see how far we can go, how good we can be.”
With the win, the Anteaters improve to an overall record of 18-3 and 12-2 in the MPSF. UC Irvine returns to action against No. 5 Pepperdine on March 14 at the Firestone Fieldhouse.