After beginning the season with expectations of returning to the NCAA Championships, the act of simply qualifying for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament looks to be an ambitious goal for the UCI men’s volleyball team.
Coming off the heels of a four-game skid, Wednesday night’s match-up against an unranked, Division II Cal Baptist team looked to be a prime opportunity for UCI to return to the win column. Instead, the No. 11 Anteaters, who began the season ranked No. 2, saw their losing-streak extend to five games after a four-set (25-17, 25-23, 20-25, 25-19) loss to the Lancers at the Bren Events Center Thursday night.
With the loss, the Anteater’s fall to an overall record of 2-7, and 1-6 in the MPSF, while the Lancers, whom were previously winless in conference play, improve to 4-6 and 1-6 in the league. The loss is likely to push the Anteaters out of the nation’s top 15, a ranking they have held for 175 consecutive weeks.
Junior opposite Thomas Hodges led the Anteaters with a career-high 11 kills and six digs, while senior outside hitter Kyle Russell was not far behind with six kills. Redshirt freshman David Parker, who previously saw action as a libero, logged seven kills as an outside hitter at an efficient .375 clip and added a block assists. Karl Apfelbach continues to struggle from the pins, as the redshirt freshman opposite had no kills on seven swings and three errors to finish with a -.429 hitting percentage. Freshman Dante Chakravorti had 33 assists and three blocks.
The match also saw freshman setter Logan Zotovich make his collegiate debut, where he totaled five assists in limited playing time off the bench.
Three Lancers logged double-digit kills on the evening, most notably sophomore middle blocker Enrique Garcia, who put away 15 kills with no errors on 19 swings to finish with a .789 hitting percentage alongside a match-high eight block assists.
The Lancers outhit the Anteaters .312 to .168, and held the home team to a .168 hitting percentage with 14.5 blocks. Service errors continue to be an issue for the ‘Eaters as the team had 14. After UCI held a 11-8 lead in the first set, Cal Baptist won six straight to take a 14-11 lead and never looked back the rest of the set. The Anteaters hit for just .037 in the first.
Despite out-hitting the Lancers .400 to .371, UCI never led in the second and fell 23-25. Of the four final points won by the Lancers, two came by way of Anteater service errors (at 22 and 24).
UCI trailed 12-16 in the third, but strong, aggressive serving from senior middle blocker Jason Agopian and a trio of kills by Hodges sparked a 7-0 run for the Anteaters that put the team in the lead for good.
A Garcia block and kill put the Lancers ahead 12-10 in the final set, and CBU would never trail the rest of the way. UCI had .000 hitting percentage (9-9-29) in the fourth.
UCI will return to the Bren on Friday where they’ll host an unranked USC team.
“I’ve never missed the competitive energy in an Irvine gym, we’ve just always had it, and I think on some level, guys coasted behind it, and maybe didn’t cultivate it on their own throughout the years,” said UCI head coach David Kniffin on the team’s loss. “I wonder if there’s enough competitive fire to lead us through the hard times…
“The volleyball is in there, I know it’s in there [because] I see it in the practice gym, and I see it in fits and spurts, but I think what we lack is quality leadership.”
While the Anteaters were without the services of juniors opposite All-American Tamir Hershko and setter Michael Saeta, Kniffin did not believe their absence would have made a difference in the team’s lost Wednesday night.
“There’s guys that are in the leadership positions on our team for all kinds of different reasons, and those are the guys that are failing us as leaders,” said Kniffin.
“The future, in terms of leadership, is absolutely bright, because we have a lot of guys that do have great competitive fire, and spirit, and fight, leadership ability, but they don’t have any volume right now with the team.”