For the first time since 2015, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team had managed to win two straight matches following their five-set (25-18, 25-17, 31-33, 21-25, 15-13) victory over UC San Diego in La Jolla Saturday night.
However, for a large majority of the evening, it looked as if the No. 14 Anteaters (6-12, 5-11 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) was instead about to set another more dubious touchstone for their 2016 campaign, of being the first team to fall to the Tritons (4-17, 0-16 MPSF) in conference play.
After decisively taking the first two sets, UCI, who swept UCSD the night before in Irvine, looked to be well on its way to a sweep after taking a 17-11 lead in the third set. However, the broomsticks would be stored away for another day as UCSD scored six-straight to tie the game before moving on to take the set in a marathon bout that saw the Anteaters fend off six set points before succumbing 33-31.
“It takes a lot of heart to do that, because it was looking pretty bleak down two sets to zero, we just kind of kept pressing, never gave up,” said UCSD head coach Kevin Ring. “I thought we served pretty tough, we got them out of system. We just kept our heads up and just never quit.
“We made things kind of go our way with our effort. Sometimes, you just outwork the play, put in a ton of effort, and good things go your way. It wasn’t anything super special, other than we just kind of picked up our level of play.”
While the Tritons performance began scaling upwards, the Anteater’s began waning, as they logged a dismal .034 hitting percentage in the fourth set (down from .256 in the third) against a newly reinvigorated UCSD.
“I think we definitely could’ve reacted a little bit better. I think our mentality went away from point to point,” said redshirt freshman outside hitter David Parker, who had a career-high 17 kills on .353 hitting, nine digs, and three blocks in the Anteater win. “We started to look and see what [had] happened instead of the next play. We just kind of lost focus.”
Of the 31 total attack errors accumulated by the team Saturday evening, more than half (19) were committed during sets three and four.
In the decisive fifth-set, the Anteaters surged out to a 5-1 lead, but once again found themselves being contested by the Tritons down to the wire. UCSD was able to close the deficit to within one at 11-10, but UCI managed to hold on to its lead to edge out the 15-13 victory in the final set.
While the match may have been too close for comfort for the Anteaters, UCI head coach David Kniffin embraced the opportunity of having the team play with their backs against the wall.
“I just love every opportunity that we can find to be in a tight stressful environment because everything from yesterday was in my mind a playoff match,” said Kniffin. “It’s just a mentality we need to start playing with because truly we lose one match here we could be out of playoffs.”
In the MPSF standings, the Anteaters are now in sole possession of ninth-place, but are a full two matches behind eighth-ranked Hawai’i (10-9, 5-9 MPSF) for the final seed in the MPSF Tournament.
Alongside Parker, the senior duo of outside hitter Kyle Russell and middle blocker Jason Agopian were instrumental in keeping the Anteater’s postseason hopes alive against the Tritons. Russell notched a match-high 22 kills, and added two aces and three blocks while Agopian had a career-best 14 kills on .478 hitting and a team-high four blocks.
For the Tritons, the home team was paced by redshirt sophomore Tanner Syftestad with 18 kills and junior outside hitter Ian Colbert with 10. Both players recoded hitting percentages of .318.
Although the Anteaters are still in contention for a playoff spot with the win, arguably the biggest takeaway from the evening was the tenacious effort exhibited by their hosts in defeat.
“I think, watching a team like San Diego play, it’s actually a very good educational experience for everyone, because this is a team that always comes out with nothing to lose,” said Kniffin. “They can legitimately come out every night, and give it their all because they have nothing to lose, and there’s a lot of freedom in that, and they showed that tonight, which was, I think, inspiring for me to watch.”
With only six regular season games left however, the team must be able to translate this mindset into their performance on the court and soon for the remainder of their schedule.
“That’s been kind of the mentality that we’ve been trying to put into our system more, I think we just need to play free, because we really do have nothing to lose,” said Parker. “We did that against UCLA earlier this season, and I think we’ve been just trying to chase that feeling. I think, there’s a lot of spurts of it, but we just need to try and get the longevity.”