While UC Irvine men’s volleyball has struggled throughout the season, the Anteaters are not done yet, and will be fighting for their playoff lives tonight when they host Cal State Northridge at the Bren Events Center.
Currently, No. 15 UCI (6-14 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, 9-18 overall) and No. 10 CSUN (6-14 MPSF, 6-13 overall) are situated in a three-way tie with Cal Baptist for the eight-seed, as all teams currently hold a 6-14 conference record.
Of the three teams, CSUN currently holds the advantage, as the Matadors will clinch a MSPF Tournament bid if they defeat the Anteaters tonight, and the UC San Diego Tritons on Saturday. UCSD is currently winless in conference play with a 0-20 record.
UC Irvine faces a much tougher road to the playoffs than CSUN, as the Anteaters will conclude their regular season against No. 4 Long Beach State (15-5 MPSF, 21-6 overall), who swept UCI at the Walter Pyramid earlier this season.
The CBU Lancers, on the other hand, finish their season with a pair of matches on the road against No. 7 Hawai’i (9-11 MPSF, 14-11 overall).
Unlike CSUN, UCI and CBU are not guaranteed a postseason berth even if they were to win both their matches this week, as their playoff lives are dependent on the other two teams losing as well. The Anteaters will earn a postseason bid through one of the following scenarios:
-UCI defeats both CSUN and LBSU, and CBU loses one match to Hawai’i on the road.
-UCI defeats CSUN but loses to LBSU, and CSUN and CBU both loses their remaining two games of the season- an unlikely scenario, given that UCSD, who faces CSUN Saturday, has not won a MPSF match-up in the last two years.
-UCI defeats CSUN but loses to LBSU, and Hawai’i beats CBU twice. However, in this scenario, UCI would need to beat CSUN in a clean sweep or in four sets by at least 11 total points.
“The easiest way to think about it is we need to win in three [tonight],” said head coach David Kniffin. “The playoffs start tonight, this is kind of one more set of parameters on playoffs, which is not only do we need to win, but we need to win in 3. This is what we want at the end of the season: Everything should feel like a playoff match, there’s no better way to train for the playoffs than to have your backs against the wall and we’ve been there, so it’s a place we’re pretty comfortable now, and hopefully we’ve got something solid to push off of because we’ve been here for a while.”
In addition to securing a playoff position, the Anteaters are also looking to avenge a four-set loss they suffered to the Matadors back in February, which snapped a 12-game UCI series win streak.
The promising news for the Anteaters, however, is that the Matadors have not won at the Bren Events Center since Jan. 16, 2009, and this time around UCI will be aided by the presence of junior All-American Tamir Hershko in the starting line-up, who had been sidelined for the majority of the season with a leg injury. Hershko made his return last Sunday in a 3-0 win over USC where he hit for .625 (6-1-8). Hershko currently holds a team-best 4.00 kills and 4.33 points per set.
Tonight’s match-up will be a much welcomed return home for the Anteaters, as they have played their last 10 matches out on the road. During the span of that road-trip, where they traveled to four states in seven days, the Anteaters appeared to have turned over a new-leaf in their season, as they pushed then No. 8 Hawai’i to five-sets on consecutive nights. UCI faltered upon returning to the states in a 3-0 loss to Cal Baptist, but rebounded to beat USC Sunday night.
“I would say we turned a corner coming off that road trip with those two matches in Hawai’i. We walked away with a couple losses, but that’s probably some of the best volleyball we’ve played actually,” said Kniffin. “To play tough, at a tough venue, on the end of a road trip, I think gives us just a glimpse again of what we’re capable of.