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Freshman Rising: Anteaters Upset No. 21 San Diego

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At the end of an arduous preseason beset by player injuries and several growing pains, the UCI women’s volleyball team (6-6) showcased the culmination of their hard-learned lessons with a 3-1 (25-21, 16-25, 25-19, 28-26) upset over No. 21 University of San Diego (6-5) at the Bren Events Center Saturday afternoon in the final match of the Mizuno Invitational.

“We had one of the toughest preseasons in the country,” said head coach Ashley Hain. “When I talked to the girls before [the match], I said that [if] we can just show them [what] we learned at Texas, at Minnesota, at Idaho, and show that we’ve grown, then [that’d] be a great ending to our preseason.”

Hain had made it clear that the Anteaters’ youthfulness was not an excuse for failure to execute, and against the Toreros, several of the team’s freshman would rise up to meet their coach’s call.

In the first set, the Anteater offense was led by the freshman duo of middle blocker Idara Akpakpa and outside hitter Lena Latour, who combined for 10 kills to will the Anteaters to a 25-21 win.

Despite holding a comfortable 19-11 lead, the Anteaters allowed the Toreros to come within two at 23-21 after a kill by senior middle blocker Canace Finley. However, the Anteaters held on to take the set after a kill by Latour created set point, which was clinched with a kill by senior middle blocker Ella Rosenfeld afterwards.

Latour finished the set with a .500 clip, recording six kills on 10 swings with one error, while Akpakpa registered a .571 percentage with four kills on seven swings and no errors.

In a reversal of the first set, the Toreros would hold a 19-11 lead in the second, but unlike the Anteaters, USD quickly closed out the set 25-16 before giving UCI a chance to threaten. After hitting for .302 in the first set, the Anteaters were held to .000 with six kills and six errors on 34 attempts.

“In the second game, we just kind of let up a little,” said Akpakpa. “I think we got too excited, [as] we just wanted to do [well].”

During the ten minute intermission before the start of the third, Hain reminded the team to remain patient, as it was expected for the Toreros to take at least one set.

“I don’t think you can sweep any good team, especially a ranked team.  You just can’t expect a sweep,” said Hain. “That’s the way the game goes.  There’s a good chance they’re going to answer back, and we can’t get rattled back.”

Coming out of the intermission, the Anteaters stormed out to a 9-2 lead, with Akpakpa partaking in back-to-back double blocks. Much like the first, the Toreros were soon able to erase the lead, momentarily taking the lead at 19-18 before a kill by junior outside hitter Victoria Dennis tied the set.

At 19-19, the momentum would then shift in favor of the Anteaters when freshman defensive specialist Jessica Taylor came in off the bench. Taylor, who had yet to see action all season, made her debut a memorable one with an ace to put the Anteaters up 20-19.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure there, but [Coach Hain] trained us to handle pressure,” said Taylor.

Under the steady serving of Taylor, the Anteaters won six straight points to close out the third set 25-21. Despite the stakes, Taylor didn’t hold back on her serve, making sure there was a purpose to each shot.

“I wanted to get them out of system,” said Taylor. “I knew in order to do that I would have to serve hard and play my game.”

In the fourth set, both teams posted their best offensive performance of the match, with UCI hitting for .415 while USD hit for .318. The Anteaters would hold match point at 24-23, but a blocking error by Rosenfeld forced extra points. USD would fend off two more match points before junior outside hitter Victoria Dennis converted a set by junior setter Shelley Anderson to complete the upset 28-26.

“As a team, we’ve come together really well,” said Dennis, who finished with 13 kills, three solo blocks, and four block assists. “If we play disciplined and play to our potential as a team, then we can beat anybody.”

Despite being held to a mere five kills the first three sets, freshman opposite Harlee Kekauoha remained resilient, erupting with eight kills in the fourth set to finish with a team high 13 kills and seven blocks.

“Up until now, [Harlee] literally hasn’t had a bad game,” said Hain. “Then she eased into it, and luckily in the fourth set, she had some huge swings for us, and I think she learned a good lesson tonight: that it’s not always going to be easy.”

For UCI, the win also came in part due largely to the Anteaters’ efforts at the net, where they out-blocked the Toreros 32-12. Senior middle blocker Ella Rosenfeld led all players with a match high eight block assists while adding 12 kills.

“I think finishing preseason this way means that every match we go into during conference play, we can believe we can win,” said Hain.

With their victory over USD, UCI has now completed its preseason schedule and will have a week to rest before hitting the road next Friday and Saturday to kick off conference play against Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State.