For the first time in the 2015-2016 season, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team appeared to have been rendered at a loss for words.
In the wake of their 3-0 loss against Cal Baptist Wednesday night, players went about their post-match stretches amidst an array of stunned silence, with disappointment and shock readily paining their faces under the lights of the Van Dyne Gym.
Few, if any, words needed to be said.
With only three games remaining in their regular season schedule, the Anteaters (8-18 overall, 5-14 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) had squandered a prime opportunity to move into a two-way tie with No. 10 Cal State Northridge (13-13 overall, 6-13 MPSF) for the eighth and final slot in the MPSF Tournament.
“We’ve got a team that has the volleyball ability, we’ve got a team that has the athleticism, and we’ve got a team that has been shown the way by generations before them, teams that have won championships, NCAA and MPSF,” said head coach David Kniffin. “So when I look at this team, the only thing I wonder is why we’re not taking that very small step between knowhow and execution.”
Although No. 14 UCI had fallen to CBU in four sets back at home in January, a second loss, much less in a sweep, is still surprising as the Anteaters had seemingly improved over the course of a five-game out-of-state road trip that culminated with the team pushing No. 8 Hawai’i to five-sets in back-to-back nights.
“I absolutely did not,” said Kniffin when asked if he saw the team apply any lessons that they had gleaned from their road trip. “I actually thought that we got a lot better on that road trip and that we learned somethings, and tonight, I didn’t see us applying any of the things we learned.”
Just as they had done so in their first meeting against the Anteaters, the Lancers finished the night with a .312 hitting percentage. UCI, on the other hand, regressed from hitting for .168 in their previous encounter to .147 the second time around.
Junior opposite Michael Saeta, who had posted team-highs of 18, 19, and 24 kills during UCI’s last three outings respectively, once again led the Anteaters, but was held to just eight kills with a .150 hitting percentage (8-5-20). Senior middle blocker Marty Ross was close behind with six kills with a .400 clip (6-2-10), and junior opposite Thomas Hodges followed suit with five of his own, but was held to .000 clip (5-5-16).
Cal Baptist was led by the tandem of senior outside hitter Rocky DeLyon and sophomore middle blocker Enrique de Diego Garcia who each posted nine kills and swung for .412 (9-2-17). DeLyon and junior middle blocker Jackson Burge were both in on five blocks to give CBU the 8.5-6.0 advantage in blocks.
For the Anteaters, the loss serves as a reminder of their longstanding inability to maintain a constant level of play throughout a set as well as their struggles to remain composed under pressure. Just four days earlier the Anteaters were on the verge of sweeping Hawai’i after taking a 23-20 lead in the third set, but collapsed to give the Rainbow Warriors the set at 24-26, and eventually, the match.
“We needed to be consistent and aggressive with our serves while controlling there’s, especially in a gym where they are comfortable serving in, unfortunately we didn’t do that,” said Saeta. “We played in spurts tonight, not consistently, instead of going point-to-point and taking care of what we needed to take care of one bit at a time. We let them get on runs and we let ourselves get in our own heads, and didn’t stay composed like we hoped to.”
Despite leading by as much as 15-9 and earning more than a third of their points from Lancer service errors (8), the Anteaters could not sustain their lead and dropped the first set 23-25. In the second set, the Anteaters battled back from 11-6 deficit to retake the lead at 17-16, but appeared to run out of steam as the Lancers closed out the set on a 9-5 run. The third set was essentially a rerun of the first, in which the Anteaters held an early lead (12-7) before succumbing to the Lancers 25-23 and thereby losing the season series against CBU for the first time in program history.
UCI is still in the running for the final playoff position, but the team must win at least two of their remaining three matches to keep their postseason hopes alive. Considering that UCI has already fallen to two of their next three opponents (3-0 to No. 4 Long Beach State and 3-1 to fc CSUN), the Anteaters can ill-afford to make any more mistakes in order to qualify for the MPSF Tournament.
The Anteaters will begin their final slate of games with a 7 pm match-up against the USC Trojans (6-16 overall, 4-14 MPSF) in the Galen Center on Sunday. Even though UCI defeated USC 3-1 back home in early February, it’s evident at this point that the team can take nothing for granted.
While the UCI men’s volleyball team have several questions to answer in the fallout of their loss to CBU, it’s clear to Kniffin that the team cannot attribute their loss to a lapse in mentality.
“At this point in the season, I don’t think you can call anything a lapse, I think it’s just a lack,” said Kniffin. “So if there’s a lapse in their mental game, I think it would be more aptly called a lack of mental game.”