The first time UCI faced off against Cal State Northridge this season, the women’s volleyball team found itself playing in front of a boisterous crowd of 1128 strong at the Matadome. Rattled by the sheer magnitude of the fans in attendance, the Anteaters were thrown off of their game and quickly fell to CSUN in three straight sets in their conference opener.
A month of Big West play later, and the battle-tested Anteaters are now a different team altogether, having developed a strengthened trust in one another and a newly-forged mental resolve.
And while the atmosphere created by the 210 in attendance at the Bren Events Center may not have matched the electricity of the Matadome, it ultimately mattered little as the Anteaters handedly swept the Matadors 25-12, 25-12 and 25-23 in just a minute under an hour and a half Saturday night.
According to freshman opposite Harlee Kekauoha, who knocked down a career high 20 kills, the biggest difference in performance from their previous game was the sense of urgency they now carry into each and every game.
“We have to go out there every point. Every point counts,” said Kekauoha, who had recorded a .531 hitting percentage for the night. “No balls are allowed to be dropped, and they shouldn’t be handled lightly.”
Behind Kekauoha was senior outside hitter Marisa Bubica with eight kills, while senior middle blocker Ella Rosenfeld added seven of her own and three block assists. Defensively, the Anteaters were anchored by sophomore libero Luna Tsujimoto, who tallied a match high 15 digs.
One of the more telling stats of the night was the Anteater’s 11 aces to the Matador’s five. Freshman libero Samantha Frost alone notched a career high five services aces — nearly half of the Anteater’s 11 — and singlehandedly matched the total number of aces from the Matadors.
UCI (11-12, 5-6) started the first set off strongly, taking a 6-0 lead before CSUN (5-17, 4-6) answered back with three straight points to cut the deficit in half. The Matadors came within one of the lead at 13-12 after an attack error by junior outside hitter Victoria Dennis, but the ‘Eaters managed to create a four-point cushion at 18-14 following back-to-back kills by Kekauoha. CSUN would respond with another three-point surge that saw consecutive solo blocks that cut the lead to 18-17, but the ‘Eaters pulled away with a 5-1 run that included an ace by Frost and kill by redshirt sophomore outside hitter Lena Latour, to lead 23-18. A Matador service error gave the Anteaters five match points, the first three going the way of CSUN before a double block by freshman middle blocker Idara Akpakpa and Latour closed out the set.
UCI began the second set in similar fashion to the first, cruising to a 8-2 lead and forcing a timeout from the Matadors. Unlike the first set, however, the Anteaters did not allow the Matadors to get back into the game, creating a 10 point buffer at 18-8 off of two consecutive kills by Kekauoha. After a kill by freshman outside hitter Nada Dragovic, UCI rallied off five straight points, punctuated with an ace by Frost to close out the set at 25-12. UCI finished the second set at a deadly .480 hitting percentage, logging an efficient 13 kills out of 25 attempts with only one error.
The Anteaters found themselves battling from behind early on in the third, but soon overtook the Matadors off of a service ace by Kekauoha at 12-11. Both teams then found themselves in a deadlock, with neither able to separate itself by more than three points, until a kill by Kekauoha and a Matador attack error put the Anteaters in a commanding position to clinch the match at 23-21. The match became a first-to-two at 23-23 after a UCI service and attack error, but the Anteaters would clinch the match off a kill from Kekauoha and a double block by Rosenfeld and Latour.
Having now avenged their loss to the Matadors, the Anteaters will look to do the same against Cal Poly, Hawai’i and UC Davis in the remaining five games of the season. Two of UCI’s remaining games will be against UC Santa Barbara, the only conference opponent the team has yet to play.
“Today we were able to play our game. [It was] much more calm, it’s late in the season, we’re getting to know each other better, [Bubica’s] back, so it’s a lot of pressure off of [Kekauoha],” said first-year head coach Ashlie Hain. “Hopefully we’re good enough to get win after win in the second round now.”
UCI returns to action next Friday, Nov. 6, when the Anteaters travel up north to face off against Cal Poly.