The Anteaters will kick off a tough four-game road slate beginning with a match against No. 10 UC Santa Barbara tonight, followed by No. 2 UCLA tomorrow.
UCI opened Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) play last month by hosting UCLA and UCSB at the Bren Events Center. Each match was decided in four-sets, where the Anteaters fell to the Bruins but defeated the Gauchos. Both teams currently boast an impressive record when playing at home, with the Gauchos holding a 4-1 record and the Bruins remaining undefeated at 4-0.
UCLA currently sits at 11-1 overall and 7-1 in the MPSF, with their lone loss being a five-set thriller to No. 4 Hawai’i on the road. UCSB sits at 8-5 overall and 4-4 in the MPSF, and have dropped their last three matches.
Since the opening weekend of conference play, the No. 12 Anteaters, who were ranked No. 4 at the time, went on to lose their next five-games before ending the skid against USC last weekend.
According to head coach David Kniffin, while the team has worked to refine the flaws that were exposed in their losses during their practice gyms, it likely will not be until the final stretch of the season that their true growth comes to materialize.
“I don’t know that we’ll be able to tell how much we’ve grown in such a short time,” said Kniffin. “I think what we’ll get to see is how we respond, how we fight. These opponents are opponents that are fresh for us, and we get to see how we play a second time around.
“But in terms of how much we’ve grown up as a team, how much we’ve learned in terms of how to play the game overall, those things take months once the deficiency is exposed.”
Currently, it is tentative as to whether or not the Anteater’s will have All-American Tamir Hershko and Michael Saeta available to play, as both players are dealing with injuries that left them sidelined with injury last week. Herhsko currently leads the team with averages of 4.07 kills and 4.42 points per set. Against the Bruins, Hershko knocked down a match-high 20 kills. Saeta currently ranked fourth in ace average (.50) in the MPSF.
Despite being without Herhsko and Saeta, the team still showcased several promising takeaways against the Trojans last Friday night.
Karl Apfelbach and Tucker Pikula each set career-highs of 16 and 12 kills respectively, while seniors Kyle Russell (16) and Jason Agopian (11) registered their season-best in kills. Dante Chakravorti set the Anteater’s to a career-high 51 assists, and quarterbacked the team to a season high .457 hitting percentage.
In spite of the myriad of noteworthy performances, the challenge for the team moving forward will be sustaining that high-level of play, a feat that, according to Kniffin, will only be possible by going back to the basics.
“The thing that separates teams from good teams is the fundamentals of volleyball […], so if you took our conference and you broke it into thirds, and you said the bottom half right now isn’t great or even good, the middle is good and the top third is great […], we’re in that bottom third, and that’s because we’re not playing good fundamental volleyball,” said Kniffin.
“So for us to crack into that middle third, we just need to play better volleyball. For us to go from being in that middle third to that top third means that we have to make great plays. Right now we’re making great plays, so every once in a while you see how well we can compete with the top teams in the country, but we don’t string it together with good fundamental volleyball to see us through, so we’re a very volatile team right now and that’s what you see.”
With an overall record of 3-7 and 2-6 in the MPSF, the Anteaters look to still be a ways off before developing into a NCAA Championship contender. However, just as it was for the Anteaters as they entered the season, the end goal is still winning a fifth NCAA title.
“Do we still have reason to believe in this UC Irvine team? My message to the guys right now is, [they] don’t have to worry about belief, I have enough of that to go around,” said Kniffin. “All [they] need to do is start acting, [they] need to start putting action behind some of my belief and I think as they start doing that, they will start to believe as will.”
“It’s hard to believe in the end scene, that is the definition of faith, and so, I’ll do that for them for now.”