Seeking its fifth national championship, UCI instead came away with its fifth loss of the season, ending the season the same way it began, with a sweep at the hands of a MIVA powerhouse (and eventual NCAA Champions) Loyola Chicago at the Maple Pavilion in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament last week.
Despite preserving in the face of several high-pressure matches all season long, the Anteaters seemed uncharacteristically hesitant Thursday night, fizzling out 25-22, 25-19, and 25-17 to the Ramblers.
During the match-up between the nation’s top two offensive teams, UCI, (averaging .356 through the season) swung for a season low .140, while Loyola (the nation’s leader at .358) hit .312.
“I don’t think I lost confidence tonight until about the 24th point in game 3,” said UCI head coach David Kniffin. “We’ve had our backs against the wall against some pretty outrageous opponents, and tonight that Loyola team is too steady to be volatile with them, and they rode that to their credit and success. I think we picked a less than ideal night to bring anything but our best.”
Throughout the season the Anteaters have demonstrated a knack for bringing out their best when it mattered the most.
In the semi-finals of the MPSF Tournament last week, it seemed certain that UCI’s championship hopes would rest on an at-large bid after trailing 3-6 in the fifth set and hitting .167 and .136 in the previous two sets. The Anteaters, however, wound up defeating the Trojans 15-11, finishing the set with a .500 clip.
“I think I’m really proud of the season we put together, my minimum expectations for this team was to make the NCAA Final 4, and my hopes and aspirations for this team were to take home another trophy,” said Kniffin. “By my minimum standard we did achieve our objective, based on what I know we’re capable of, we did not.”
UCI were never able to tap into their fifth gear, with Loyola seemingly imposing their dominance at the net at will. The Rambler’s had 10.5 blocks to the Anteater’s 4.0, a key cause to UCI’s 23 attack errors.
Stumped by Loyola’s block, the Anteaters began to rely on a more cautious approach to scoring, utilizing tips and roll shots to little success.
“I think some of that shot selection was based on, I hate to say it, it was nerves. I wonder…I am curious about that,” said Kniffin.
La Cavera, a 1st team All-American selection who registered new career-highs with 25 and 26 kills on back-to-back kills last week, only mustered 10 kills on .100 hitting.
“There’s no beating around the bush, I was tentative tonight,” said La Cavera. “We started out okay, and then we just let them take the reins, and they just rode it out through the rest of the match. I blame myself, I know I’m a leader on this team, and other guys rely on me, and I failed tonight.”
UCI came out firing to a 9-5 start in the first set, in a run that saw a pair of service aces by Saeta and La Cavera.
Though UCI was no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, having won in its last eight appearances, it was the Ramblers who exhibited the poise and calm atypical of a veteran team.
Following a timeout, the Ramblers closed the deficit and took their first lead of the game at 14-13. Loyola never trailed again, closing out the set 25-22.
“They came out steady, and I don’t think we were ready for that. I think we were ready for them to falter a little bit, and that’s relying too much on things you can’t really rely on too much, and it showed,” said La Cavera. “We got exposed really bad there.”
In the second set, the Ramblers totaled 7.5 blocks to hold the Anteaters to an abysmal .031 hitting percentage. After UCI tied the score 15-15, Loyola rallied off four straight to take a 19-15 lead before taking the set 25-19.
Even without the threat of the Rambler’s presence at the net, the Anteaters committed several unforced errors that were uncharacteristic of the team.
“We had opportunities to turn some points, there were some players that we made tonight rather didn’t make tonight that were just so textbook and basic for us that it was strange to not see that happening.
After trailing 3-7, the Anteaters showed signs of life by seemingly tying the score at 7-7 off a Rambler attack error. Unfortunately, a late touch call awarded Loyola a 8-6 lead, which they soon stretched to 10-6. At one point Loyola had twice as many points as UCI at 16-8, winning 25-17 to close the curtain on the Anteater’s season.
“Nine times out of team we execute, but [it kind of] just seems like we got that tenth one today,” said sophomore setter Michael Saeta. “They just were a little bit more ready than we were.”
Sophomore outside hitter and All-American 1st team selection Tamir Herhsko had a match high 12 kills, but was relegated to a .172 hitting percentage.
Middle blockers sophomore Andrew Benz, and junior Jason Agopian contributed four kills each, while setters sophomore Michael Saeta and senior Roberto Frazzoni totaled 32 assists together.
Senior libero Michael Brinkley, the only player in program history to earn All-American accolades three times, finished his collegiate career with eight digs.
Though UCI’s quest for a fifth national championship will have to wait until next year, the program nonetheless enjoyed a remarkable season, claiming numerous all-conference accolades and boasting a nation best 28 wins.
“It’s a terrible feeling knowing how hard we worked this whole season and how to end up like that, especially my senior year, but like I was saying, I hope this is just a learning point for the guys that still have another shot at it next year, I think we’re going to be really good next year,” said La Cavera.