After the UCI men’s volleyball team lost their fifth-straight match to an unranked Cal Baptist team Wednesday night, it was evident that what was once a promising season had suddenly, and unceremoniously, been derailed.
The team had already dropped to No. 11 in the national poll after beginning the year at No. 2, and were now in jeopardy of losing a national ranking amidst the top 15 altogether after losing to the Lancers.
Yet, rather than forcefully prevent the team from continually steering off the rails, head coach David Kniffin instead did the opposite. On the following night, Kniffin and the coaching staff allowed the players to run practice on their own.
“Honestly, one of the hardest things to do sometimes is, [when] you’re teaching your kids to drive, is to let them go out on the road on their own,” said Kniffin. “When we got to practice on Thursday, we actually just let them run practice and sat back and watched.
“It was nice to hear their voices steer the ship for a little while.”
Kniffin’s faith did not go unrewarded, as the Anteaters went on to defeat the USC Trojans in four sets (26-24, 22-25, 25-18, 25-18) and put an end to their five-game skid at the Bren the night.
With the victory, the team improves to a 3-7 overall record and 2-6 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, while the Trojans drop to 1-8 overall and 1-6 in conference.
While UCI was still without All-American Tamir Hershko and Michael Saeta, both of whom were sidelined with injury since Wednesday, five Anteaters recorded career or season-highs, namely Kyle Russell (16 kills), Tucker Pikula (12 kills), Jason Agopian (11 kills), Dante Chakravorti (51 assists), and most notably Karl Apfelbach, who notched a .500 hitting percentage on a career high 16 kills to go alongside five total blocks and digs.
“I have to give credit to my teammates, they believed in me,” said Apfelbach. “I have to give credit to [Kniffin], he’s a great mentor, he’s believed in me since I got here.
“He’s been talking to me every day, giving me pointers, [and] just made my mental game strong.”
The Wisconsin native’s performance serves to validate some of the high expectations Kniffin holds for the freshman opposite, as prior to Friday night’s contest Apfelbach had struggled heavily throughout the season, and averaged a -.010 hitting percentage.
“I finally saw Karl get aggressive tonight and enjoy playing, which is what I remember from the recruiting process and what I see sometimes in practice,” said Kniffin.
The first set was a tightly contested back and forth affair, with a total of 20 tie scores and six lead changes. Both teams displayed a strong offensive showing, as UCI logged a .600 hitting percentage while the Trojans were not far behind with .560. Neither team led by more than two throughout, and a Trojan service error gave the Anteaters match-point. Senior middle-blocker Marty Ross logged his only kill of the game off an errant USC pass to clinch the frame 26-24.
UCI led by as much as 14-10 in the second set, but were plagued by nine total service errors and dropped the game 22-25 to the Trojans.
Although UCI went on to finish the night with 19 total service errors, Kniffin is not too troubled by the statistic. By having players continually go after their serves, Kniffin hopes to cultivate an aggressive mentality within the team, a trait that would outweigh the downside of having a higher number of service errors.
“I have to be true to what I told them, which was I wasn’t going to focus on errors, I wanted them to focus on a mindset,” said Kniffin. “Where we’re trying to go, is still so far away, and I believe we need to let the volleyball come to us.
“We can’t calibrate to a moving target, so the volleyball will go up and down in a match, but if we can calibrate to a mentality that we can hold stable, I think we’ll be able to regulate our volleyball.”
After an early deadlock, UCI went on a 6-2 run, fueled in part by three Apfelbach kills, to take an 18-13 lead. Apfelbach knocked down back to back kills to close the game 25-18.
In the fourth set, the Anteaters used seven total team blocks to hold the Trojans to a .083 hitting percentage. At 22-18, UCI would clinch the match off a Apfelbach solo stuff and two Trojan errors (one attack, one service).
Although the Anteaters are back on track for the time-being, the team will be put to the test when they face No. 1 UCLA and No. 7 UCSB on the road next week.
“It’s a scary moment taking your hands off the wheel, but you know, we’re in it for their growth and development, so we got to be committed there,” said Kniffin.