UCI men’s volleyball had carried their point-to-point mentality to great success in the past week, posting clean sweeps over USC and CSUN to stay in the running for the postseason.
But against No. 5 Long Beach State, No. 15 UCI quickly learned how quickly a game can turn awry once that mentality is abandoned, as the Anteaters suffered a five-set loss (25-22, 19-25, 22-25, 25-13, 15-7) in their regular season finale Saturday night.
Rather than take on each point as its own entity, UCI (10-19 overall, 7-15 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) appeared to be enveloped by the highs and lows of the game- resulting in a game dictated by numerous runs and momentum shifts. At times, the Anteaters displayed a caliber of volleyball worthy of their preseason No. 2 ranking- and in other moments demonstrated why the team now find itself on the precipice of falling out of the national rankings altogether.
“I think, when we were on, it’s because we lost track of what the score was, we were truly just playing and enjoying being in a battle in a great venue with a good crowd,” said head coach David Kniffin. “When we were down, I think it’s because we were surfing the wave that the Beach was putting out there for us. Anytime you play the momentum game with a team that loves momentum makes it tough. I think if we can keep learning, we were better tonight than I think we’ve been, but if we can keep learning how to regulate point to point, we become very dangerous.”
With the loss, the Anteaters’ postseason hopes rested on the outcome of the No. 9 Hawai’i and No. 14 Cal Baptist match that took place in Hawai’i following their loss, where a Cal Baptist victory would have meant the end of UC Irvine’s season. Fortunately, the Rainbow Warriors went on to defeat the Lancers in straight sets, thereby giving the Anteaters the eighth and final seed in the MPSF Tournament.
UC Irvine’s group of seniors had stand out performances in the final home game of their collegiate careers, with outside hitter Kyle Russel boasting 13 kills on .308 hitting, middle-blocker Jason Agopian putting away nine kills (.467) and four blocks, and middle-blocker Marty Ross errorless on the night with eight kills on 15 swings (.533) and a match-high five blocks.
But on a night dedicated to UCI’s seniors, it was the duo of LBSU freshmen TJ DeFalco and Kyle Ensing that shone brightest. DeFalco finished the night with a match-high 24 kills, and added six digs and two block assists, while Ensing had 14 kills and was in on three total blocks.
Statistically speaking, the two teams were on relatively even ground, as LBSU (23-6, 17-5 MPSF) outhit UCI .244-.212, while UCI had the edge in digs 42-39. Both teams had 9.5 blocks and committed 13 service errors.
What the head to head stats fail to indicate, however, are how much the team’s performances fluctuated between sets. The 49ers swung from hitting a.031 at the beginning of the night to a blistering .700 by the night’s end, while the Anteaters oscillated from an abysmal -.091 to a .355 hitting percentage.
After taking the first set, the Anteaters held the advantage up till the second set with a 13-9 lead until being called for a setter line violation. UCI struggled to assert themselves in the set afterwards, and the 49ers went on to close the set in a dominating 15-6 run.
“[We] really tried to focus on a point by point mentality, when we start losing track of that, I think is when we started dropping points,” said junior libero Dillon Hoffman, who recorded seven digs and referred the sets lost as ‘disaster sets.’
UCI rallied from an early deficit in set three to notch the score at 16-16, but allowed the set to slip away off of several attack and service miscues.
All-American junior opposite Tamir Hershko, who posted hitting percentages of .625 and .458 in the Anteater’s previous two wins, was unable to sustain his previous levels of play, as he was held to a -.050 (6-7-20) hitting percentage against LBSU before being relegated to the bench for good in the third set.
The Anteaters caught a second wind in the fourth set, as they jumped out to a 10-2 lead before closing out the frame 25-13. Russell, who hit for a combined .083 (4-3-12) in the first three sets knocked down seven kills on 10 swings with one error to finish the fourth with a .600 clip.
However, after being dominated by UCI in the fourth set, LBSU would return the favor twice over in the fifth, and hit for a blistering .700 (8-1-10) while holding the Anteaters down to an abysmal -.091 percentage, marking a 61 percent difference in hitting percentage.
“They came out with a lot of fire, I think they knew they don’t have much to lose in this situation,” said Hoffman of LBSU’s performance in the fifth set. “And they just came out swinging.”
With their ticket to the MPSF Tournament punched courtesy of the Rainbow Warriors, the Anteaters will begin postseason play on the road against No. 1 seed and MPSF regular season champions BYU in Provo. Considering that the Cougars swept the Anteaters in both regular season meetings, UCI may need to emulate Long Beach State’s approach in the fifth set tonight to emerge victorious from the Smith Fieldhouse.