It may have been just one game, but for one night it looked as if head coach David Kniffin’s vision for the UCI men’s volleyball team this season had finally begun to materialize.
During Saturday’s practice within Crawford Hall, Kniffin called upon his players to stop focusing on where the season went, and instead concentrate on where the season can still go. Yes, the team’s ultimate goal of winning a national championship seemed unattainable, as it requires UCI winning at least eight of the next nine matches-provided they make it into the postseason at all. It’s a tall order, and one that would involve the Anteaters matching the number of wins they’ve garnered in the past three months over the course of five weeks.
The key, however, as it has always been at UCI, was to take each things one point at a time.
And a day later, the Anteaters (9-18 overall, 6-14 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) would respond to Kniffin’s call with a sweep of USC (7-17, 5-15 MPSF), while posting their highest hitting percentage (.682) of the entire season and keeping their playoff hopes alive in the process. UCI also proved to be superior in terms of blocks (8.0-6.5) and digs (20-6).
“It’s really easy for us right now to look at where we are, look at where we have been and dwell on what may have happened in the past and the losses that we picked up, but when you go out there and you’re focusing on what you need to do this exact point and how you’re going to win […], you really don’t have any room in your mind to focus on anything [else] and to worry about any past experience so that is the point to point mentality,” said Saeta. “If you’re really focusing on how you can win that point, then that’s how you’re going to be able to execute and do it, and that was something that we really focused on and were able to put to mind today, and that was a really good decision.”
The Anteaters were led by junior Michael Saeta, who recorded 14 kills at a .667 clip (14-2-18). Junior opposite Thomas Hodges followed with 10 kills while senior middle blocker Marty Ross was a five kills for five swings and led all players with seven blocks.
“I think they’re doing a nice job of growing through a very challenging season, I thought they did that well. I think they are willing to piece it together with whoever is going to step forward and perform because no one will be perfect through the course of a playoff run, which is what tonight was,” said Kniffin. “Every [game] here was a playoff [game], and so one guy steps forward for a bit, and does his best as long as he can, and then if he falters at all we got another guy that can come in and help out, which I think was the dream from the beginning of the year. To see that come together a little bit now at the end is exciting.”
UCI was additionally aided by the return of All-American junior opposite Tamir Hershko, who was sidelined with injury throughout the majority of the season. In his first match back, Hershko recorded six kills while hitting for .625 (6-1-8) before sitting out in the third set.
“You wouldn’t dream of taking a player off the court that’s hitting that well, but we want to pace him, and kind of help him back in,” said Kniffin. “But the benefit to Tamir being with us is not just volleyball, it’s absolutely psychological; there’s a confidence knowing that you got a player like Tamir able to help the team again.”
Senior middle blocker Josh Kirchner led the Trojans with seven kills (7-2-12), followed by junior outside hitter who had six kills and three blocks.
Perhaps the most noteworthy demonstration of the Anteater’s growth took place during the third set of the match, where the team’s mental toughness was put to the test. As of late, UCI had struggled to put their opponents away after taking a two sets to none lead, with the most recent example being against Hawai’I where the ‘Eaters were up 2-0, 23-20 in the third set before faltering to the Rainbow Warriors in five.
After holding a 10-7 lead in the third, the Anteaters would drop their lead, and trail behind the Trojans up until the 21-22 mark. This time around however, UCI would not crumble, and the ‘Eaters would close out the set on a 4-1 run to complete the USC sweep.
“That’s something that we’ve faced before, we’ve played every opponent and we’ve been up before, and we’ve let it slide. So today, when we let that happen, we kind of bought into that mindset where it didn’t matter, we really just needed to win this point, we needed to figure out how we’re going to get that point and then we let it happen,” said Saeta. “You’re not going to be able to be in control of the entire match every single point, every single game if we’re going to win nine matches in a row, there’s going to be times where it’s going to slip, but you can’t let that mentally get to you.”