Less than 24 hours after being swept by No. 10 UC Santa Barbara, the No. 12 UC Irvine men’s volleyball team was led by career-highs from all three of its seniors to a five-set upset (25-17, 18-25, 25-23, 24-26, 20-18) over No. 2 UCLA at the Pauley Pavilion Thursday night.
“It feels really good, that’s a good team, they’re a very good team, and they’ve been playing at a high level,” said assistant coach Mark Presho. “We’ve taken our lumps of late, so to come in here and beat them on their home floor after we got hammered last night by Santa Barbara, was a really nice win for us.”
Senior outside hitter Kyle Russell led all players with a career-high 21 kills, a match-high 11 digs, three service aces, and seven blocks. For the Loomis native, the game plan for the night was simple.
“[We] just played volleyball, kept it free and played volleyball,” said Russell.
Behind Russell were senior middle blockers Jason Agopian and Marty Ross. Agopian logged a career high 13 kills on a .409 clip alongside five blocks, while Ross had seven kills (.600) and posted a team-high eight blocks.
Thursday marked the second Mountain Pacific Sports Federation meeting of the season between both parties, as the Bruins had previously defeated the Anteaters (4-8, 3-7 MPSF) in four-sets to spoil their home opener. The upset is not only the second loss of the season for the Bruins (11-2, 7-2 conference), but also their first defeat at home, of which they were previously a perfect 4-0.
Throughout the season thus far, UCI had demonstrated glimpses of their potential, but often failed to balance out their sporadic outbursts with consistent volleyball. For the Anteaters, the key to success for the evening, and ultimately the season, was rooted in a return to the basics.
“We did a much better job of staying within ourselves in terms of the serve and pass game,” said Presho. “At every level of this sport, it’s still all about serving and passing, and we were really good from the service line, and then we did a much better job of being fundamental in serve receive on first ball.”
Prior to their win, the Anteaters had lost six of their last seven games, and struggled to field a steady starting lineup onto the court, due to an unfortunate mix of both performance issues and player injuries. UCI has been without the services of All-American opposite Tamir Hershko, setter Michael Saeta, and libero Dillon Hoffman due to injury for the past two weeks, and no time table has been set for any player’s return as of yet.
“We’ve been mixing up our line up a lot, not to make excuses, but we’ve got about 5 guys injured, so it’s been kind of a carousel for us,” said Presho. “We’ve just been playing different kinds of guys, trying to find that formula, and we found a little bit of momentum last night, not a lot obviously, but a little bit in spurts, and so we decided to go back with that lineup.”
The decision immediately paid off, as the Anteaters hit for .615 in the first set, marking one of their most prolific offensive performances of the season. UCI used five total team blocks, two of which came in the final three points of the frame, to hold UCLA to a .000 clip.
However, the visitors were soon thrown for another loop when sophomore outside hitter Reid Dominquez, who hit for .667 (2-0-3) in the first set, joined the list of sidelined Anteaters after suffering a bone injury at the start of the second set. To replace Dominquez, UCI inserted junior opposite Thomas Hodge, who despite not playing at his natural position, finished with three service aces, two blocks, and six kills, two of which came in the final two points of the night.
“[Hodges] actually came in and did a great job for us,” said Presho. “Passed the ball well, and he’s not even a passer, so that was huge for us.”
The Bruins, whom were led in kills by sophomore outside hitters Jake Arnitz (14) and JT Hatch (13), came roaring back in the second, and closed the game on a 6-0 run. The two went on to split the third and fourth sets, each of which was decided by a margin of two points and featured a combined 24 total tie scores and eight lead changes. In the decisive fifth set, the Anteaters struggled to close out the Bruins after leading at 9-5 and 13-11, but held on to pull off the upset at 20-18 after back to back kills by Hodges ended the night.
As the players celebrated their win, the Anteater’s looks of jubilation soon faded into ones of measured indifference, their focus already being put towards the rest of the season. After all, under the bright lights of the Pauley Pavilion, where the program captured its last national championship just three years ago, there was no reason to be overly excited.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s one match, and we need to win many more,” said Agopian.