There’s still more than a month of volleyball to play before the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament, but it’s already do-or-time for the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team.
And off the heels of a four-game skid, UC Irvine (5-12, 4-11 MPSF) managed to keep their postseason hopes alive a while longer with a straight set win (26-24, 25-15, 25-10) over UC San Diego (4-16, 0-15) at the Bren Events Center Friday night.
“We’re at that point where every match here for the next seven matches, eight matches before tonight, really are elimination games for us, because we need to win them to make the playoffs,” said head coach David Kniffin. “So, for me it was an opportunity to practice that mentality. When we were down in the first set, that was my comment to the team, to say, ‘Look, this is playoff volleyball now. You better just let it rip, and if it turns out we’re not good enough, well then, we’re not good enough, but there’s no reason to hold back right now.’”
Coming into the weekend, UCI was locked in a three-way tie with Cal Baptist (8-12, 3-12) and the University of Southern California (4-11, 4-13) for ninth-place in the conference standings- and out of the eight-mean MPSF Tournament field. As of Saturday morning, only the Anteaters and the Trojans remained deadlocked in ninth place, but both teams still have quite a bit of ground to make up in order to catchup to Hawai’i (5-9, 10-9), who currently ranks eighth in the MPSF.
While the Tritons were winless in conference play before (and after) Friday’s contest, the Anteaters were not about to take anything for granted.
“The way that we prepared, is similar to the way that we prepare for every single other team,” said senior middle blocker Jason Agopian. “We can’t take any- we don’t have the luxury to take any matches off, so we have to come out here and play this team like it’s the top team in the country.”
Leading by example, Agopian hit for .889 on eight kills and no errors in nine swings in addition to logging a match-high four blocks. Fellow senior and outside hitter Kyle Russell paced the Anteaters with 15 kills on .481 hitting, while adding two blocks two service aces.
UCI began the night on shaky footing- hitting for .259 in the first set, but gradually improved with each subsequent set, hitting for .346 and .667 in the second and third sets. Conversely, UCSD’s performance waned as the match progressed, as the Triton’s hitting percentage dipped from .219 from the first set to .143 and .069 in the second and third.
The most telling statistic for the Anteaters, however, can be found from the team’s performance at the service line. UCI logged a total of seven service errors throughout the night- their lowest of the season- leading them to finishing with a season-high .907 serving percentage.
“Serving and passing is key to winning matches, and if you’re not going to be able to serve well and in, and if you’re not going to be able to pass well, then it’s going to make it very difficult,” said Agopian, “And I do think that our passing and serving has improved through the last couple matches.”
Being that the Anteater’s last win was nearly a month ago, on Feb. 12 in a five-set upset over then No. 2 UCLA, the impact of Friday night’s contest may extend beyond the mere x’s and o’s for the team.
“I don’t think anyone will understand the significance of this win until well after the season’s over,” said Kniffin. “But there’s no question there’s a psychological effect of winning, and it is a positive [one], [but] we need to learn how to win again, it’s been a while.”
UCI will look to continue reeducate themselves onto their winning ways when they travel to La Jolla for a rematch against UCSD later today.