Career Highs Lead No. 5 UCI Over No. 10 LBSU
It took a near herculean effort by senior opposite Zack La Cavera and senior All-American libero Michael Brinkley, but after the dust had settled No. 5 UC Irvine emerged victorious over No. 10 Long Beach State 3-1 (25-21, 25-21, 19-25, 25-20) in front of a raucous crowd of 1,402 at the Bren Events Center last Friday.
Brinkley recorded a career-best 25 digs, setting the all-time program record for digs in a match. The previous all-time record at UCI was 21 by Brent Asuka in 2007. Additionally, Brinkley’s 25 is one shy of the MPSF record of 26, set by Erik Shoji in 2009.
La Cavera smashed a career-high 23 kills, hitting .425 on 43 attempts and adding five digs and two blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Tamir Hershko had 16 kills with a stellar .600 hitting percentage on 25 swings, while senior outside Travis Woloson added 10 kills and seven digs. Junior middle blocker Jason Agopian had 10 kills and five digs, and setters Michael Saeta and Roberto Frazzoni combined for 58 assists.
It was a back and forth affair in the first set, with neither team able to stretch their lead past two points until a kill by senior opposite hitter Zack La Cavera put the Anteaters up 3 at 22-19. Senior outside Travis Woloson clinched the set for the Anteaters after two attack errors by the Beach gave the Anteaters a 24-21 cushion. LBSU was plagued by seven attack errors in the first while UCI only committed one.
A pancake save by Brinkley led to a kill by Woloson to put UCI up 3-1 in the second, but one again both teams struggled to pull away from one another by more than two. Woloson salvaged a pivotal play by converting an errant block pass into a kill to tie the game 14-14, and a La Cavera kill while falling backwards put the Anteaters back in front at 15-14. A 4-0 that included a kill by Agopian, Hershko, La Cavera, and an ace by Frazzoni opened a 22-18 lead for the Anteaters. UC Irvine never trailed again, winning the second 25-21 on a put away by Hershko.
Though Long Beach State slipped late in the second, they exhibited a much more focused attack, limiting their attack errors to just one and hitting for .359 after recording .220 in the first. In the third the Beach’s continued to build upon their offense, hitting a sharp .552 to take the set 25-19. Long Beach State’s middle blockers exerted tremendous on the Anteaters attack with nine block assists, holding the home team to .241 after UCI recorded .471 and .419 in the first two sets.
Long Beach State’s momentum carried over early into the fourth set, as the Beach hammered away at faltering Anteater squad. After falling to a 5-9 hole, La Cavera decided he had seen enough, calling for a time-out. During the huddle, it wasn’t Coach Kniffin or assistant Coach Mark Presho that held the floor as per norm, but La Cavera, who vented his frustration with the team’s lackluster level of play. His choice words proved to be the wake-up call the team needed, as the Anteaters mounted an 8-4 run (with two kills by La Cavera) to tie the game 13-13.
“Luckily they took it in the right way, they’re mature enough to realize I wasn’t just lashing out at them,” said La Cavera. “I was telling them I’m more expecting more from the guys and myself too, they took it really well.”
A kill by Woloson and service ace by sophomore setter Michael Saeta gave a reinvigorated UCI a 19-18 edge and prompted a time out by Long Beach State. Agopian and Woloson stuffed an attack by the Beach out of the break and Woloson emerged triumphant from yet another joust at the net to go up 21-19.
Within the crucial moments of the fourth set, La Cavera placed the team on his back, scoring the next three points with a kill, a solo block, and another kill to give the Anteaters give five match points at 24-19. A kill by Agopian sealed the match 25-20.
La Cavera recorded eight of his 23 kills in the fourth, with Brinkley tallying nine of his 25 digs in the final set as well.
“What you saw right there were three seniors that just stepped up and took ownership of the game.” said Coach Kniffin.
With the win, UCI improves to an overall record of 22-4 and 16-3 in the MPSF Conference. Coach Kniffin’s squad return to action next week on the road where they will play UCSB on April 8th and UCLA two nights later on April 10th.
“I think the main thing is we need to go into this weekend and get some rest, because we’re at the tail end of a very long season, we need to be fresh during this last bit,” said Coach Kniffin.
UCI has only three more conference games before beginning play in the MPSF Tournament. Though the road to capturing their fifth national championship is just around the horizon, the men’s volleyball team isn’t overlooking their remaining opponents in the home stretch of the season.
“We gotta finish the season strong if we want to do well in the MPSF. I think we realized that, like tonight, we got to keep working hard, especially next week,” said Brinkley. “Those are going to be huge for us to win if we want to be good in the MPSF.”