After the UCI women’s volleyball team (8-10, 2-4) defeated UC Riverside (6-12, 1-4) in straight sets last Saturday night at Crawford Hall, the look of relief on first-year head coach Ashlie Hain’s face as she embraced freshman Harlee Kekauoha said it all. Prior to the evening’s win, the Anteaters were at a loss and struggling for answers, having dropped four out of their last five matches. While it may be too early to tell, Saturday night’s victory was a sign that maybe, just maybe, the Anteaters had finally rediscovered their footing in the Big West.
“I felt like we definitely found ourselves throughout all these tough losses. We would lose and we wouldn’t understand why,” said Kekauoha, who finished the night with a match high of 14 kills. “We’d go back to the drawing board, but it’s still the same things we worked on during practice, so this win definitely affirmed that what we’ve been doing is right.”
Since ending their preseason schedule with an upset victory over then-No. 21 University of San Diego, the Anteaters appeared to have been slowly regressing with each subsequent match. Opening conference play against a 1-11 Cal State Northridge team, the Anteaters found themselves on the wrong end of a sweep. The team then struggled offensively on the road in a four-set loss to No. 25 Long Beach State. Upon facing the winless Cal State Fullerton (0-13) squad, the Anteaters only narrowly managed to escape with a two-point margin of victory in the fifth set.
Perhaps the most crushing defeat for the Anteaters came about just two days prior in a 0-3 rout by Cal Poly. Against the Broncos, the Anteaters simply looked overwhelmed and lost. Coach Hain has continually stressed the importance of taking each match one point at a time, but that mentality seemed absent as the team allowed the Broncos to string together a streak of several unanswered points throughout the night.
Saturday night, however, the Anteaters seemed to have finally remembered the level of volleyball they were capable of playing at. Against a scrappy Highlander team, the Anteaters did not falter, executing an efficient offense (.342 hitting percentage) and scooping up a cumulative total of 50 digs to dispatch Riverside in a mere hour and 35 minutes.
Perhaps the best example of the Anteaters’ renewed vigor was none other than sophomore defensive specialist Chloe Hakim, who emerged with three acrobatic saves in a furious rally that would help the Anteaters earn match point.
“We have pushed just consistency and determination in practice, and sticking with it, sticking with it, and I think that showed,” said Hain. “Chloe’s dug a lot more balls than that in recent time in a row in practice, and so for that to translate onto the court tonight was really nice.”
It looked as if the first set would be over quickly, as the Anteaters established a 16-8 lead off a kill by junior outside hitter Victoria Dennis. The ‘Eaters would struggle to close out the set as they allowed the Highlanders to go off on a 10-4 run to close the deficit to two at 20-18. A pair of kills by Dennis would give the Anteaters the separation they needed before a kill by Kekauoha clinched the set 25-20.
It would be the Anteaters’ turn to play catch-up in the second as the Highlanders jumped out to an early 8-4 lead. However, the Anteaters remained resilient, and tied the game at 11-11 thanks to a pair of Highlander errors. A double block by senior Ella Rosenfeld and junior Shelley Anderson following a Highlander timeout gave the Anteaters the lead for good, and a kill by freshman middle blocker Idara Akpakpa closed out the set 25-22.
In the third set, the Anteaters quickly coasted to a 12-7 lead following a service ace and solo block by Akpakpa. UCI kept UCR at a five-point deficit, but the Highlanders slowly whittled the lead down to two points at 21-19. Much like the first set, however, a pair of kills, this time by outside hitter senior Marisa Bubica, would put the game out of reach (23-19) and the ‘Eaters would clinch the set off a Highlander service error.
“We had the momentum, but they always made a push at the end, and I think that’s just a testament to the type of the team they are. They fight,” said Hain. “We hung in there and I’m proud of our girls for responding to that.”
While the Anteaters will soon have to turn their attention to a matchup against perennial NCAA Championship contenders No. 8 Hawai’i next Saturday, for now, they can revel in the fact that the team is once again making progress in their growth.
“We really needed this win for our morale; like I said, Riverside’s a tough team to play any day of the week, so it was great to sweep them,” said Hain. “I think that gives us a lot of confidence in our play and our ability moving forward. Riverside will take sets off a lot of teams in this conference, if not win. It’s a feel-good win for us, and we’re rutted in our season. We needed that to kind of boost morale and be positive looking ahead.”