Last Friday night, in the finals of the MPSF Tournament, senior opposite Zack La Cavera made it clear why he was called upon by UCI head coach David Kniffin to deliver the program to a fifth national championship.
Only a night removed from posting a career-high 25 kills against USC in the semi-finals, the MPSF Player of the Year blasted another personal best 26 kills to lead UCI to a 3-1 (25-23, 21-25, 25-23, 25-23) victory against third-seeded Pepperdine to capture the MPSF Tournament Championship.
“From the very first swing he took, Zack demonstrated that he was going to be great for us and he really didn’t let that go the whole time he was on the court,” said Kniffin. “He played a lot like the MPSF Player of the Year and he played like a tournament champion.”
For his performance, La Cavera was named the Tournament MVP, while senior libero Michael Brinkley and sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz were also named to the all-tournament team. Benz posted eight kills and five blocks while Brinkley had six digs.
“I’m really proud of how I played,” said La Cavera, “But I’m more proud of the guys on the team, I can’t just do this alone, (I need) to have my guys backing me up.”
Senior outside hitter Travis Woloson had a negative .125 attack percentage, but still made his presence felt with a career and match high 13 digs and three blocks.
“Travis brings so much more to the court than just his numbers will ever show,” said Kniffin.
Pepperdine was led by senior outside hitter Josh Taylor with 23 kills at a blistering .636 clip and six digs. Senior opposite Parker Kalmbach had 12 kills and eight digs while senior setter Matt West posted 45 set assists and a team-high of nine digs.
Neither team led by more than two points early on in a tightly contested first set that saw 14 tie scores. UCI broke open the set with a 16-11 lead, but the Pepperdine Waves responded with four unanswered points to close the deficit. Kills by Taylor and Kalmbach put Pepperdine up 22-20 but UCI evened the score off a kill by Benz and service ace by freshman Reid Dominguez off the bench.
UCI would score the final three points off a kill by La Cavera and two in a row by sophomore outside hitter Tamir Hershko to take the first set 25-23.
Pepperdine responded in the second set by hitting for a searing .632 (13-1-19) to take the second set 25-21. UCI swung for .435 in the second, but was plagued by five service errors.
Yet another close set that saw 10 tie scores, the Waves edged out a 15-12 lead over two miscues by the ‘Eaters. A kill by Woloson pulled UCI within two at 17-19, but Pepperdine pulled away to hold five match points at 24-19. UCI managed to save two match points before a Pepperdine kill ended the set 25-21.
After outgunned by the Waves in the second, the Anteaters turned to their blocking game to regain control of the match in the third set.
Pepperdine was in control of the majority of the third set, jumping off to a 4-1 lead right off the bat. At 9-14, the duo of Benz and Woloson brought the deadened crowd back to life with a double block. UCI continued to chip away at the Pepperdine lead and another block by Benz and Woloson pulled the ‘Eaters within two at 16-18.
Benz continued to assert himself at the net, teaming for another block with Saeta to cut the lead to 18-19. After a Pepperdine service error, a kill by Hershko tied the game at 21-21. A service by Saeta gave UCI its first lead of the game at 23-22, followed by an Agopian and Herhsko double block to earn the setpoint. UCI escaped with the set at 25-23 after both teams committed a service error.
Of Benz’s five block assists for the evening, three of them came in the third set.
“Traditionally for me, blocking is something that I’ve struggled with in the past,” said Benz. “This year I felt like I really honed in on it, especially thanks to (Kniffin’s) coaching.
Both teams once again remained neck and neck in the fourth set until UCI opened a four point lead off a service ace by Herhsko and kill by Agopian at 17-13. Prior to the ace, Herhsko last four serves all fell short.
“(Whether it’s) Travis, Tamir, anybody you look at,” said Kniffin, “(Those) guys turned it on in the right moments.”
UCI led 21-18 after an off-the-block kill by Benz, but Pepperdine pulled within 22-21 off an Anteater service error. The Anteaters held a 24-21 cushion off two La Cavera kills, but UCI wouldn’t clinch the set until a kill by Agopian on the third match point, 25-23.
The victory earns UCI an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in the Pauley Pavilion at Stanford next week, where the team will compete for the program’s fifth national championship in nine seasons.
UCI’s bid marks the program’s sixth NCAA appearance, and the third for Brinkley and La Cavera, who played key roles in the Anteaters’ 2012 and 2013 championship campaigns.
“We’re more than excited to be able to do this for the third time for us in the four years that we’ve been here,” said La Cavera. “It’s (a credit) to how this program is, and I don’t think it’s just [the seniors giving our all], it’s a whole team unit, that’s what UC Irvine’s about.”
After being named the No. 2 seed following the results of Selection Saturday, the Anteaters earn a bye to the semi-finals on Thursday, May 7th where they face the winner of the playing-in between defending NCAA Champions, Loyola Chicago and Pfeiffer.