Men’s Volleyball Off To 4-0 Start

When the 2015-2016 campaign began, No. 8 ranked UC Irvine men’s volleyball (4-0, 1-0) had been riding on the waves of a successful 28-5 season finish that was capped off by a NCAA run that stretched into a semifinals match-up with Loyola Marymount.

Plagued by injuries and some questionable performance issues on the ‘Eaters side of the net, the 2015-2016 year did not pan out the way head coach David Kniffin’s bunch would have ever anticipated. A No. 2 preseason rank quickly evaporated and dipped to No.14. The string of losses blossomed to 20 on the year, 15 in MPSF play. No.1 BYU, an opponent that the team has been no stranger to in past years, knocked the ‘Eaters out of postseason contention on a straight-set win.

Having gone through the adversity they had last season, the ‘Eaters have begun this season with a reinvigorated effort and mentality that has shown through its 4-0 start on the season thus far, picking up victories over Concordia, Fort Wayne, UC San Diego, and Grand Canyon. While UCI will not see a ranked opponent until they face off against UC Santa Barbara next Wednesday, it is a welcome sign for a team that looks to reestablish themselves as an elite team in the MPSF.

“We had a little bit of a sour taste left in our mouths from last year,” head coach David Kniffin said. “[But] a lot of guys and a lot of things grew [this year]. It’s the last year for some of these guys…there’s the potential that we may have five seniors on the court by the end of the season. There has been a lot of good off season work…a lot of good fall training work that these guys have put in to give them confidence.”

Just a day removed of capturing a 3-0 victory in their conference opener against UC San Diego, coach Kniffin’s bunch took care of business Friday night in their first ever non-conference matchup against Grand Canyon (Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association) in another 3-0 sweep (25-20, 25-19, 29-27).
The ‘Eaters outhit the Antelopes, .404-.209 and took on 14 more digs (34-20) than the opposition.
Senior outside hitter Tamir Hershko finished hitting 0.632 to slam down a game-high 13 kills. He also had four digs and three block assists.

“Tamir just has an excellent arm and he just kind of finds ways to score in unlikely situations so we lean on him for that and we have him set that standard,” coach Kniffin said. “
Freshman middle blocker Scott Stadick and senior outside hitter Thomas Hodges both contributed eight kills a piece. Along with his kills, Stadick finished with three block assists and has currently collected 17 on the season. Hodges also tied with sophomore setter Dante Chakravorti, who notably registered 15 set assists, for team-bests in digs with six.
After stuffing the stat book in the conference opener, senior setter Michael Saeta made up for an off-hitting night (0.062) by still garnering seven kills, 28 set assists, two service aces, and four digs.

“Michael has just become a really well rounded and versatile volleyball player for us … just being able to step up and do whatever it is that we need him to do,” coach Kniffin said.

UCI went four unanswered in the opening set on subsequent slams by Saeta and Hershko along with a little help from two errant plays on Grand Canyon’s end of the net.

Following a quick time-out, the Antelopes gathered themselves and shifted the momentum in their favor, going on a 7-3 run to bring the game to a draw at 7-7.

Junior outside hitter Luke Turner, who finished with seven kills and two digs, helped the Antelopes capture their first lead on the night, 10-8, after serving up an ace and kill on subsequent plays.

It would be the last major run for Grand Canyon however, as the ‘Eaters would rally back and through a period that saw to three more ties before going on a 6-0 run to pace themselves to a 25-20 set victory.

Much like they had done so in the first set, UCI came out with a strong 3-0 run on the second, before losing their momentum for a bit and having the lead splitter out of their hands when the Antelopes erased an early deficit to knot the game at 7-7.

From that point on however, UCI locked down, hitting 0.517—their best set of the night—to ensure that they would not relinquish their lead. With some help from Hershko’s four kills and a rejection from a trio of Hershko, Stadick, and Hodges, the advantage escalated to 19-14.

Grand Canyon stabbed at their deficit and came within four on a pair of kills, but UCI would hold them off as Hodges delivered the set-defining blow at 25-19. In a final attempt to extend the contest, the Antelopes offset a 2-0 lead and capitalized on a few errors on the ‘Eaters end to go up 11-7. UCI would eventually come back and the contest would tie up point for point until Hershko gave UCI a match point opportunity with a swing that tipped off Turner’s fingers.

While UCI had a chance to put the game away, Grand Canyon would not give in and forced two more match points at 25-26, and 27-26, before Hershko turned the pressure up one last time on the Antelopes with a kill and an attacking error ended the game at 29-27.

“For us … whoever comes…bring it on,” Hershko said. “We’re ready to compete for every point.”

UCI has given up just one set across four games in their strong start to the season. They will attempt to keep their momentum and team mentality up as they head on the road to meet No. 12 UC Santa Barbara Wednesday followed by a matchup against No. 2 UCLA Thursday.