Cal State Fullerton
Less than two weeks removed from upsetting No. 21 University of San Diego, the UCI women’s volleyball team has quickly learned that their success has not gone unnoticed by their opponents in the Big West.
After dropping their first two games of conference against CSUN (3-11) and Long Beach State (12-4), the Anteaters were pushed to the brink of defeat against a winless Cal State Fullerton team before narrowly taking the match in five sets, 25-17, 28-26, 25-19, 26-24, 15-13, to avoid a 0-3 start in conference play at Crawford Hall last Wednesday night.
“We’re seeing teams now that are gunning for us because we’ve had a little bit of success. I think Northridge and Fullerton probably had one of their best matches against us, I mean they’re really just playing out of their minds because they have nothing to lose,” said first-year head coach Ashlie Hain. “We’ve had some good wins, and so, I think that’s a tough position to be in, especially with three freshman on the floor.”
Of the three freshman who saw action Wednesday night, two ended up with career highs. Outside hitter Harlee Kekauoha posted a match high 19 kills at a .310 clip, while middle blocker Idara Akpakpa had 11 kills and four total blocks.
These career highs were not gained however, without first enduring an arduous back and forth affair against the scrappy Titan team.
The night began promisingly enough for the ‘Eaters, who took a 7-4 lead after consecutive aces by sophomore libero Luna Tsujimoto and never looked back to cruise to a 25-17 win in the first set.
Holding double match-point at 24-22, the ‘Eaters looked to be well on their way to a sweep before the Titans responded with two straight kills to force extra points. Despite holding two more match-points at 25-24 and 26-25, the ‘Eaters could not put the Titans away, and wound up conceding the set 26-28.
The ‘Eaters struggled to establish an offensive rhythm in the third set, recording a match-low .135 hitting percentage. After trading points early on, the Titans took a 10-8 lead with two blocks, and led by as much as 18-10 before taking the set 25-19 to take a 2-1 lead in the match.
In the fourth set, a kill by junior outside hitter Victoria Dennis put the set within reach at 23-20, but Fullerton responded with three straight points to prompt an Anteater time-out. The Titans would hold off one match point at 24-23 with a double block, but the duo of Ella Rosenfeld and Sydney Wright answered back with a block of their own to force a fifth set at 26-24.
A kill by Dennis put the ‘Eaters in control late at 13-11 in the fifth, but once again the Titans managed to come back and tie the score at 13-13. Another kill by Dennis gave the ‘Eaters match point at 14-13 and Akpakpa salvaged a broken play with a kill to avoid the upset at 15-13 to clinch the match.
“Coming out playing against Fullerton, we knew that they were going to play hard, and they were going to play scrappy, they were looking for a win,” said Dennis, who finished the night with 18 kills and three block assists. “We came out, foot on the gas pedal, and we were punching and screaming, had a couple of bumps in the road, but at the end I think we did a really good job of coming together as a team, and playing discipline and just pushing and grinding the last points.”
While the rest of the ‘Eaters Big West only looks to become increasingly more challenging, the team will have to first address the issues on their own side of the court. For the ‘Eaters, one of the most telling numbers of the night was 14, the amount of service errors the team collectively logged.
“I think our serving is just all over the place. We know how to serve, I mean it’s something we do every day at practice, and I think it’s just a reflection of where you’re at mentally,” said Hain. “We’re just in a rough spot mentally right now [but] we’ll get through it.”
Despite holding a 27-6 advantage in blocks, the Anteaters could not overcome the Aggies, falling in four sets by a score of 15-25, 25-22, 25-23 and 25-14 at the Pavilion, Saturday night.
Both teams finished the night with a .157 hitting percentage, which marks the first time in eight matches that the ‘Eaters have hit for below .200.
Freshman outside hitter Harlee Kekauoha tallied a double-double for the night with 12 kills and 12 digs, while senior middle blocker Ella Rosenfeld logged a match high eight block assists. Sophomore libero Luna Tsujimoto tied UC Davis’s Malia Bolko for a match-high 17 digs.
The ‘Eaters return to action next Thursday night on the 8th when they will host Cal Poly at Crawford Court.