During Thursday’s contest against Cal State Northridge, UC Irvine men’s volleyball needed to either beat the Matadors in four-sets by at least a 11-point differential or a sweep to remain in the running for the eight-man postseason Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament.
The Anteaters chose to go with the latter.
With their playoff lives at stake, the No. 15 Anteaters (10-18 overall, 7-14 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) played with a sense of urgency that translated into a 25-17, 25-18, 25-23 win over No. 10 Cal State Northridge (13-15 overall, 6-15 MPSF) at the Bren Events Center Thursday night.
For the Anteaters, whom were locked in a three-way tie with CSUN and Cal Baptist for the final seed in in the MPSF Tournament, a loss Thursday night would’ve instantly ended any postseason hopes.
“I don’t know if we expected to, so much as we knew we needed to,” said head coach David Kniffin about the team’s combined fifteen-point margin of victory in the first two sets. Everybody acts different when every point truly matters, and we knew that tonight, if this thing went four, then points were going to matter. So this is the first time I’ve really seen the team, commit to a point-to-point mentality. It doesn’t guarantee victory, but it sure keeps the focus.
The Anteaters now hold the tiebreaker against the Matadors, but their entry into the postseason is still contingent on the outcome CBU’s two road matches against No. 9 Hawai’i on Friday and Saturday.
If UCI were to upset No. 4 Long Beach State (21-6 overall, 15-5 MPSF) on Saturday, the Anteaters would still need at least one CBU loss to punch their ticket to the postseason. Should UCI lose to LBSU, the Anteaters would still qualify for the MPSF Tournament if Hawai’i sweeps Cal Baptist.
UC Irvine was led by All-American junior opposite Tamir Hershko, who returned last Sunday in a sweep against USC after being sidelined with a leg injury for the majority of the season. Hershko had a match-high 14 kills on .458 hitting in addition to six digs and 27 serve-receives.
“It’s great to be back on the court, I love it, it’s my place and this is where I want to be,” said Hershko.
Helping shoulder the offensive load behind Hershko was junior Michael Saeta at outside hitter, who hit for .471 on 10 kills out of 17 swings and two errors. Saeta also put away a match-high four service aces, two of which helped spark a 13-2 run against the Matadors in the second set.
Cal State Northridge was led by freshman outside hitter Dimitar Kalchev with 10 kills on .300 hitting, and sophomore middle-blocker Josiah Byers who had hit for .545 and had eight kills and four blocks.
The Anteaters proved superior in nearly every statistical category, as the home team outhit (.400-.253), out-blocked (10.0-7.0), and out-dug (19-13) the visitors throughout the evening.
Where the Anteaters most excelled however, was by taking care of business on their own side of the net from behind the service line. On top of hitting seven aces to the Matador’s one, UCI limited itself to just six service errors. Not only is that the lowest number of service errors by the Anteaters all season, but it is also only the second time in 28 games that the team has committed fewer service errors than aces.
Prior to Thursday’s contest, the Anteaters had average 3.1 service errors for every one service ace, and had at one point in the season, committed 25 service errors while only producing three service aces.
UCI had its most efficient offensive showing in the first set, as the Anteaters logged a .632 hitting percentage. In addition to Hershko finishing the set with a .714 clip, the Anteaters used four total team blocks to hold Kalchev and senior middle blocker Brian O’Gorman to a dismal -.667 and -.200 respectively.
The Anteaters cooled off significantly in the second set, hitting for only .190, but were still able to clinch the set after securing a comfortable 19-8 cushion early on.
The third set proved to be the most heavily contested frame of the match, as it featured a total of 15 tie- scores and five lead changes- the first two sets only had a combined six tie-scores and three lead-changes. Unlikethe previous two sets, it was the Matadors that led for the majority of the frame.
“Nothing special,” said Hershko when asked what adjustments the Matadors made in the third set. “I think we just took our foot a little bit off the gas pedal, we just need to keep pushing for the whole time.”
The difference maker proved to be senior outside hitter Kyle Russell, who had yet to see action the entire match before coming off the sidelines as a serving specialist. Russell wasted no time in making an impact, and blasted a critical service ace to put UCI up 23-21 in the third.
“For Kyle to come in, and execute in such a high pressure moment, that’s what players have to do in playoff runs,” said Kniffin. “Whether it’s David Ortiz for the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and hitting a walk-off run, or Kyle coming and smashing an ace in a critical moment, that to me is the same thing.”