Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year, the UCI men’s volleyball team has endured no shortage of adversity.
Whether it be player injuries or, quite frankly, some head-scratching performances, the Anteaters’ issues always seem to be relegated to their side of the net.
Yet in the quarterfinals of the MPSF Tournament Saturday night, adversity didn’t manifest itself in either of those aspects. Rather, it came in the form of a BYU team that simply outclassed UCI in a straight-set win (25-21, 25-20, 25-23), and subsequently ended their season in the process.
“I don’t think that we induced any of our own adversity tonight,” said head coach David Kniffin. “This is the first time we’ve had three outside hitters that were playing pretty good volleyball. We rotated through all three of them, and there was enough adversity coming from BYU’s side of the net tonight. That is clearly the best team in the country right now, and they kind of have been all season. I think for us it was just the story of too little, too late tonight. We had opportunities, [but] I don’t think that we were comfortable doing what we needed to do to slow them down.”
Junior opposite Michael Saeta and senior outside hitter Kyle Russell led the Anteaters with 11 kills apiece, respectively recording hitting percentages of .292 and .455.
Against the nation’s top team in blocks per set, the Anteaters held their own by matching the Cougars’ five total team blocks. Serving wise, UCI committed 11 errors, three less than the Cougars, and held the edge in digs 27-25.
However, as far as offensive output is concerned, the Anteaters were outgunned .429 to .282.
Excluding sophomore setter Leo Durkin’s 0-1-2 (-.500) performance, every Cougar hit upwards of .350 for the evening. Perhaps the most telling stat lies in All American Ben Patch’s performance: Despite having four attack errors, the combined total of the rest of his teammates, he went on to finish the night with an impressive .370 hitting percentage.
UCI remained competitive with BYU for large stretches of each set, but unlike the Cougars, failed to string together any runs during the latter portions of each frame due in part to some untimely miscues.
“When it came down to it, we didn’t execute in certain areas that we needed to at the times we needed to,” said Saeta. “Honestly, in a tight game like that it’s going to come down to making plays, and they made more than we did when it mattered.”
With the loss, the No. 14 Anteaters finish their season with an overall record of 10-20, 7-15 MPSF, while No. 1 BYU improves to 24-3, 19-3 MPSF and goes on to host the semi-finals and finals of the MPSF Tournament next weekend.
During the offseason, the Anteaters will have time to mull over the shortcomings of the season, and in the process, hopefully come to understand why what would’ve been a matchup between the nation’s top two teams at the beginning of the year had devolved into a battle pitting the nation’s No. 1 against No. 14 by the year’s end.
Kniffin, who has already garnered an NCAA title and two MPSF Coach of the Year accolades in his first three seasons as head coach, notes that even for himself, a learning experience awaits in the offseason.
“I think when I get away from this season a little bit…when we’re looking backwards to look forward to next season, I think we’ll see a lot of opportunities where we can grow and get better,” said Kniffin. “Myself as a coach for sure, I’m still in year four [of being a head coach], I for sure got a lot to learn about how to lead this group…I believe we were in the hunt right to the end despite all the adversity this year.”
Regarding next season, history appears to be in the Anteaters’ favor as UCI has traditionally rebounded from off-seasons. One prominent example would be 2009, where the Anteaters captured the NCAA Championship after similarly having their season ended by BYU as the eighth-seed in the quarterfinals of the MPSF Tournament.
For Saeta, history is little comfort in the current moment.
“I think the main thing for me right now is this hurts. This isn’t a good feeling and this season hasn’t necessarily been a good feeling. So, it’s a big motivating factor as anyone should ever need. The second that last point finished and BYU won the match, our season began for next year,” said Saeta. “I’m going to work as hard as I can, and I hope the team buys into it. We’ve had off years in the past, and the next years have been pretty dang good for us, but this doesn’t feel good, and there’s nothing that motivates more than that.”