For the UCI men’s volleyball team, a key component of their success has always been taking each match point by point.
Such a mantra was evident during last night’s grueling five-set win, (22-25, 25-17, 25-23, 16-25, 15-11) win against the fourth-seeded Trojans in the Bren Events Center in semifinals of the MPSF Tournament last night.
UCI, who leads the nation with a .361 hitting percentage, was held to a mere .257, its lowest offensive showing of the season.
Thursday night’s showdown marks the fifth straight match between both teams that have gone five sets. USC rallied to defeat UCI 3-2 at home earlier this season, but the Anteaters returned to favor at the Galen Center after trailing 0-2.
“They’re competitive, they bring out the best in us, and I think something about that match up brings out the best in them,” said UCI head coach David Kniffin.
According to Kniffin, the decisive factor in fifth-sets is often confidence, a trait that USC likely held an abundance of.
Prior to the evening’s match, the Trojans were 7-2 in five-set matches, and looked poised to improve to 8-2 after handedly taking the fourth set 25-16.
Despite struggling offensively throughout the night, the Anteaters did not back down, continuing to press the attack in the fifth. UCI swung for .167 and .138 in sets three and four respectively, but boasted .500 in the decisive set.
Senior opposite Zack La Cavera, who was held to a .239 (21-10-46) hitting percentage in the first four sets, pulled through for the Anteaters in the fifth, recording .500 off of four kills and one error on six attempts.
“[I] thought to myself that I just got to go for it, the guys are on the court, [they] trust me being able to go for it, and I have to be able to trust the guys,” said La Cavera. “I’ve really just put faith in that, and swung for the fences.”
USC dictated the opening points of the fifth set, going up 3-0 and 5-2 to prompt an Anteater timeout.
The Trojans led 6-3 before an emphatic kill by La Cavera closed the deficit to two and brought the previously deadened crowd of 2985 roaring back to life.
Three-straight attack errors by USC gave UCI its first lead of the set at 7-6.
Sophomore outside hitter Tamir Hershko soon erupted with consecutive kills to give UCI a 10-7 lead, eliciting a timeout by USC.
USC’s Alex Slaughter scored a kill out of the break, but kills by Hershko, La Cavera, and Benz kept the Trojans at bay 13-10. A service ace by Herhsko gave the Anteaters quadruple match point at 14-10.
A service error the following point only delayed the match-clinching shot by La Cavera the point after.
“[La Cavera] felt he was being tentative, and he decided to make a change,” said Kniffin. “When you have a player address the team, and say hey, ‘I’m just gonna let it hang out today, I’m gonna go for it,’ that’s an inspiring moment.”
La Cavera, who earned MPSF Player of the Year honors, finished the night with a career-high 25 kills and tied another career high of 13 digs.
Hershko added 15 kills, while senior outside hitter Travis Woloson had seven kills and three blocks.
Junior middle blocker Jason Agopian had nine kills and one block.
Sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz posted eight kills, swinging at an efficient .583 (8-1-12) for the night and added five total blocks.
Senior setter Roberto Frazzoni had 42 assists while senior libero Michael Brinkley had a match-high 19 digs.
In the first set, the Trojans overcame nine service errors to take the set 25-22 against the Anteaters; UCI’s first five-points were off USC service errors. UCI held a 21-19 edge, but USC rallied to tie the score and took the set 25-22 off of two blocks and a kill in the final three points.
After hitting a subpar .176 in the opening set, UCI bounced back with .481 hitting percentage in the second set to USC’s .130. A kill by Woloson propelled UCI to a 9-4 lead and the Anteaters rode the momentum to a 25-17 win.
Neither team was able to lead by more than two points for the majority of the third set; the largest deficit was 13-16 in favor of USC.
At 15-17, UCI’s sophomore setter Michael Saeta had a pivotal showing off the bench, firing two service aces to tie the game 17-17.
UCI managed to inch ahead at 19-18, but USC soon held a commanding 23-21 advantage after a 5-2 run. Behind the steady serving of Woloson however, the Anteaters won four straights, in a rally that saw a Trojan miscue and kills by Woloson, La Cavera, and Hershko to steal the set.
In the fourth set it was the Trojan’s turn to take control, as they jumped out to a 11-6 lead and soon took the set 25-16.
First-seeded UCI (27-4) advances to the tournament finals, where they will face third-seeded Pepperdine (24-5) for an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament next week held next week in Palo Alto.
Pepperdine upset second-seeded Hawai’i, 3-1 (21-25, 25-22, 26-24, 25-16) in the first semi-final of the day. For UCI, today’s match marks the program’s third appearance in the MPSF Tournament Finals, while it will be the seventh for the Waves.
Looking ahead to tomorrow, UC Irvine will look to come out swinging against the third-seeded Waves.
“Nothing good in sport has ever come from being tentative,” said Kniffin. “We have fears as volleyball players, on the court we have places we can probably get beat, but I think what’s really important is that we don’t run from them.”