Last year, the UCI men’s volleyball team ended UCLA’s season by eliminating them in the MPSF quarterfinals last year. Back then, the match was a one-sided affair, with the first-seeded Anteaters making quick work of the eighth-seeded Bruins in a sweep that lasted a little over an hour and twenty minutes at the Bren Events Center.
Friday night’s MPSF season opener between the two, however, was a different story altogether.
For starters, the No. 4 Anteaters were not the favorites heading into the match against the No. 2 Bruins. A UCLA team that was mainly comprised of talented, but inexperienced freshmen now featured a strong core toughened after a year of MPSF play.
While last year’s match featured a total of six tie scores, and two lead changes, this year’s featured 47 tie scores and 18 lead changes. The cumulative margin of victory in each set amounted to 25 points then, tonight the margin was only 10 points, with three of the sets decided by two points.
And finally, this time, it was the visiting Bruins who emerged victorious at the end of the night, improving their record to a perfect 4-0 (1-0).
While the Anteaters (1-2, 0-1 MPSF) held their own against the Bruins in terms of hitting percentage (.292-.269) and total team blocks (9.0-.9.5), the team was outmatched from the service line. Both teams had a high amount of service errors (14 and 12 respectively), UCI only finished with a total of two service aces to UCLA’s eight.
“There’s so many areas of our game that need to be better. The obvious ones to pick out are gonna be the service errors, the receiving errors, and then the hitting errors, but there’s a lot places we just need to tighten up our game,” said head coach David Kniffin. “Sometimes it’s hard to do that until we’re exposed in a match setting.
“We can talk about it in practice, but until we’re in a game, it’s hard to believe that it’s really a deficiency that we have,” Kniffin continued.
Junior opposite Tamir Hershko led the Anteaters with a match-high 20 kills while swinging at a .436 clip, and added two block-assists and seven digs. Although senior outside hitter Kyle Russell recorded a .162 hitting percentage, he wasn’t far behind with 15 kills, six kills and two block assists, and a service ace. Freshman opposite Karl Apfelbach struggled on the offensive end with five kills on .071 hitting, but held his own on the defensive end by recording a match-high nine digs.
Senior middle blocker Jason Agopian led the team with one solo block and four block assists with five kills, while junior middle blocker Andrew Benz chipped in three block assists and was errorless (3-0-4) throughout the night.
Junior setter Michael Saeta logged 42 assists and seven digs, and junior libero Dillon Hoffman logged eight digs in the backcourt for the Anteaters.
The Bruins were led by junior middle blocker Mitch Stahl and sophomore outside hitter Jake Arnitz, both of whom blasted 14 kills apiece.
With UCLA using a 6-2 formation that deploys two setters on the court at once, setting duties were split between freshman Micah Ma’a and sophomore Hagen Smith, both of whom collectively logged 52 assists.
“It is different seeing it, it definitely puts a different perspective,” said Russell. “There’s two setters, two different types of styles, but we just need to keep playing the same way, keep everything the same, and go on to stay disciplined in our blocks and make [winning] happen.”
Neither team led by more than two points in the opening set, but the Bruins changed that by taking a 17-13 lead off a double-block and Anteater attack error to prompt a UCI timeout. While the Anteaters closed to deficit to two out of the break, the Bruins regained their four-point margin off of two service aces and used a 6-3 run to close the frame.
In the second set, it looked as if the Anteaters would be on the receiving end of the sweep this time as they found themselves trailing 10-16. Continuing to fight, the Anteaters used two blocks (one solo and one double) and two Bruin errors (one attack and one service) to narrow the deficit to 14-17. Building on their momentum, UCI closed the deficit at 17-17 after a Bruin attack error sandwiched between two Hershko kills. UCI took the lead for good at 20-19 following an Apfelbach kill, and soon held double-match point at 24-22. Although the Bruins managed to survive till deuce, a Russell tip-in and quick set from Saeta to Agopian clinched the set and completed the improbable comeback for the Anteaters.
“That was just an all-around team effort,” said Russell. “I tried to put my serve in, and trusted the block, trusted our diggers, and the crowd got behind us, so it got us fired up, it was just good all-around volleyball.”
UCI cruised to a 5-1 lead in the third, but the Bruins came back to tie-it at 11 all off a double-block. Afterwards, both teams were locked in a stalemate, and continually traded points with one another up until 23 all. Unfortunately, the ‘Eaters ended the set on a pair of miscues (one service and one attack) to concede the set 23-25.
The fourth set was yet another tightly contested battle between the two, with both teams trading points deep into the 20’s once again. This time the stalemate ended at 22, at which point, a kill by Stahl and service ace by Ma’a gave UCLA two match points. A double-block by Agopian and Apfelbach staved off the first match point, but sophomore outside hitter JT Hatch managed to push the ball through the Anteater block at 24-23 to clinch the match for the Anteaters.
UCI will have less than 24 hours to rest before returning to the Bren to host what may be a rather confident eight-ranked UC Santa Barbara team, who is currently riding a five-match win streak. Both teams have met defending NCAA champions Loyola-Chicago in preseason play, and whereas the Gauchos won 3-1, the Anteaters fell in five sets.
“I think Santa Barbara always has confidence,” said Kniffin. “They’re a really good team, they have been the last couple of years.
“What I can tell you about Santa Barbara [being] different than UCLA is they will compose a completely different set of match-ups and issues for us, so it’ll be a different kind of challenge.”