A day after a grueling four-set loss to UCLA, it was business as usual for UCI men’s volleyball team at the Bren Events Center.
Against a No. 8 UC Santa Barbara team that was riding a five-match win streak, the No. 4 Anteaters defeated the Gauchos 3-1 (25-19, 25-21, 22-25, 25-22) off the back of a match-high 19 kills by junior opposite Tamir Hershko.
“Tamir’s performance is kind of, tonight, what he’s used to doing. When he played on his team from 15 years old and onward, he was always the go-to guy, so he’s very obviously the go-to guy here,” said head coach David Kniffin. “Actually I think he’s most comfortable when he’s getting a high-load. We worry about wear and tear on him and things like that, then we look at him and he’s probably one of the strongest guys in the gym too, so he’s right at home.”
Much like he had during UCI’s (2-2, 1-1 MPSF) first three games, Hershko spearheaded the Anteater’s efforts on both ends of the floor, hitting for .474 on the evening and scooping a match-high 12 digs.
“I feel great, we won, it’s an important win, and we have a lot to go from here,” said Hershko.
Senior and sophomore outside hitters Kyle Russell and Reid Dominguez followed with 11 kills each, hitting .320 and .250 respectively.
Senior middle-blocker Jason Agopian tallied two block assists and six kills on .545 hitting, while fellow senior middle-blocker Marty Ross had three total blocks and six kills on 10 swings and one error.
Junior setter Michael Saeta had another solid all-around performance, notching 48 assists alongside adding three kills, four digs, and four service aces. Redshirt junior libero Dillon Hoffman totaled eight digs and four assists in the back row.
The Gauchos were led by redshirt junior opposite Matt Marsh’s 13 kills, while redshirt senior outside hitter Austin Kingi and redshirt freshman middle-blocker Connor Drake had nine kills apiece.
With the exception of the Anteaters outhitting the Gauchos .347-.276, neither team had a clear-cut advantage in other areas of the game. UCI had six service aces, 41 digs and 7.5 total blocks, while UCSB had five service aces, 40 digs, and eight total blocks.
“I think playing against Santa Barbara, we never expect it to be clean. So the fact that we’re at the end of the week on Saturday night after a loss the night before, it’s kind of the perfect storm to play them,” said Kniffin. “Every year I’ve been here as an assistant and a head coach I haven’t really remembered a clean match with Santa Barbara, they just scrap and fight…”
Hershko did the majority of his damage in the first set, erupting with nine kills on 11 swings with no errors. UCSB held a 9-6 advantage in the first, but UCI responded with four straight that consisted of a Saeta service ace and two Hershko kills to retake the lead at 10-9. The Gauchos kept within a two-point deficit throughout the set, but the ‘Eaters pulled away with a 7-2 run capped off by two Hershko kills to clinch the set at 25.
Hershko built upon his hot streak with five kills in the second to total 14 kills, totaling the same number of kills by the rest of his team combined. The Gauchos opened the second set with a 6-2 lead, but the ‘Eaters came out of a timeout with a 6-2 run of their own to tie the score at 8-8. Both teams exchanged points up until 12-12, at which point UCI managed to distance itself with a 15-12 off a kill by Dominquez and solo block by Ross. While the ‘Eaters nurtured the margin into a comfortable 23-17 lead, the Gauchos unloaded four straight to close the gap to two before a service error and Russell ended the frame 25-21.
UCI led 18-16 in the third set, but UCSB scored six straight points to command a 22-18 lead. The ‘Eaters managed to fend off three-match points from the Gauchos at 19-24 before succumbing to an unexpected free-ball at the end of the frame. Hershko, who was held to one error on 23 swings and 14 kills coming in to the third was held to one kill and one error on nine swings.
Both teams had their best offensive showing in the final set, with UCI hitting for .500 and UCSB for .435. Russell, who registered four total kills in the first three sets, became the go-to player for the ‘Eaters by putting away seven kills in the fourth set. After 13-15, the Anteaters ignited with a 7-1 run capped off by a Saeta service ace and Russell/Ross double-block to take an 18-15 lead. Hershko would score the final two points for the Anteaters to close out the Gauchos 25-22.
Even in victory, it was apparent that the team still had plenty of room to grow, as the team logged several service (13) and blocking (7) errors on the night. Per Kniffin, a positive takeaway from their pair of weekend matches is that the team now understands what they need to work on after having some weaknesses exposed, but will likely experience some growing pains throughout the early portion of the season.
For now, however, the team will only have a week to fine-tune their game before traveling up north for a pair of road games against Pepperdine and Stanford.
“I think Irvine volleyball is always a collection that wants to work hard and compete. We got that as a baseline, [our] volleyball is definitely not where we want it to be, but I think where we want to be is possible this season,” said Kniffin. “I feel pretty good about our trajectory, as far as identity goes, I like what we’re starting with, but we’re not there yet.”