With No. 2 UCLA handing the ‘Eaters their first loss on the season last Thursday, No. 6 UC Irvine (6-2, 3-2) returned to action this past week, facing off against UC San Diego (1-5, 0-4) and No. 5 Hawai’i (6-2, 1-2) in back to back matches.
On Friday, the ‘Eaters slugged through five long sets for a 3-2 victory over UC San Diego at RIMAC Arena to return to the winning column. However, the Rainbow Warriors, who had swept the UCI in both their meetings last year, would hand UCI their first loss at home, second on the year, in four sets.
“I see a lot of guys that have a very grounded understanding of where we are and where we want to be,” head coach David Kniffin said following Saturday’s loss to Hawai’i. “I watch how we’re working and paying attention [and] I think this is a team that’s going to try really hard to play point to point and just get marginally better everyday.”
UC San Diego
Out to return to their winning ways, UCI dominated the first two sets (25-22, 25-19 respectively) on Thursday night, but the Tritons bounced back in subsequent sets to force a fifth during Friday night’s elongated battle.
UCI, however, would take over in the deciding set when they came back from a 13-11 deficit to take the game on a pair of kills by senior opposite Tamir Hershko and two miscues on the Tritons to cap the game at 17-15.
A number of ‘Eaters finished with season highs as Hershko and fellow senior Thomas Hodges led the team with 15 kills each. Senior Andrew Benz and freshman Scott Stadick clogged the middle, posting four and three blocks respectively. Benz also struck his season-best with 11 kills while Stadick added nine.
Senior Michael Saeta, who has been first in aces (0.86), 14th in hitting percent (.423), and 10th in set assists (7.81) in MPSF, had a customarily well-rounded game. The South Pasadena native was all over the court with five kills, 48 set assists, and three aces.
San Diego’s run began late in the third set when junior opposite Tanner Syftestad, who finished with a game-high 23 kills and three aces, helped rally the Titans back from a 17-14 deficit to ultimately take their first lead, 24-23, within the set. Senior outside hitter Thomas Hodges would answer with a kill of his own to knot the game up at 24-24, before the Tritons emerged a top at 28-26 on another Syftestad kill after forcing three more match points on the ‘Eaters.
With a 2-1 set advantage, the Tritons were still in hot waters and UCI would attempt to turn up the pressure. San Diego did not let that happen as the Tritons traded point for point and prevented the ‘Eaters from taking an advantage greater than one for the entirety of the set.
Both teams would trade leads eight times and tie the game on 18 different occasions.
On a Hershko error and a kill by Syftestad, San Diego took a 22-20 lead momentarily before Hodges and junior Tucker Pikula erased it to knot the game once more, 23-23. San Diego won the tug of war on the next two serves with another Syftestad kill and a service error by Hershko to bookend the period.
In the determining set, UCI returned to their dominant form. After trailing on a 13-11 deficit, Hershko slammed down two from Saeta that nullified the Tritons’ lead. And on the final two points of the night, Syftestad committed two costly errors that brought the game to a close, 17-15, to keep the ‘Eaters win streak rolling.
A night later, UCI returned to the Bren Events Center to host Hawai’i in their lone match up with the Rainbow Warriors this year.
Last season, Hawai’i took the ‘Eaters to five sets in both their contests — back-to-back matches in Honolulu — where they managed to squeeze away within the closing sets.
This time around, the match went to just four as the ‘Eaters’ late surge in the final set came to no avail after Hawai’i used a slight advantage to pull away, 25-23, to ice the match.
“We just got to go out there and compete point by point,” Hodges said. “To play every point as if it were zero [to] zero or ten [to] ten.”
Hodges picked up from where he left off in San Diego, leading the ‘Eaters with a career-high 21 kills on 0.444 hitting.
“We got a lot of guys who are pretty offensively minded … so you can’t pay attention to them all at once,” head coach David Kniffin said. “Thomas is definitely an offensive hitter … [he] is getting some really good looks out in the court, which is huge.”
Hershko powered in 10 kills while Saeta paced in another five kills, 36 set assists, and three aces. Stadick hit a team-best .533 and used all of his length to turn away four blocks.
For Hawai’i, sophomore Stijn Van Tilburg registered 19 kills while hitting a .485 clip as senior Kupono Fey contributed 10 kills.
One of the more glaring issues came with the 24 block assists that Hawai’i managed to snag on the night.
“I felt like we made them look like a great blocking team and I think that they’re an okay blocking team,” coach Kniffin said. “We just took some swings that probably weren’t very veteran of us.”
UCI was slow to the ball in the opening set, giving up a 16-10 lead courtesy of three kills and an attacking error on the ‘Eaters side of the net.
Stadick cut into the deficit, slamming one down the middle out of a time out to bring the set into a seesaw period were points were traded back and forth.
Without subsequent stops however, Hawai’i utilized their early boost to take the set with a commanding 25-16 advantage.
While not as bleak as the first set, the ‘Eaters’ woes continued in the second. After Hodges got UCI going with a kill that was followed up by a double block by Stadick and sophomore Karl Apfelbach (four kills and two assists), the Rainbow Warriors answered back behind kills from Tilburg and Fey.
UCI would gain some separation from a couple of subsequent Hawai’i errors and would see their largest lead at 13-9 before Hawai’i began to dissolve UCI’s defense.
After Tilburg served up an ace to race right back and tie the match up at 22-22, a kill from Fey and two uncharacteristic swing attempts from Benz and Hershko handed Hawai’i the second set.
In their do or die set, the ‘Eaters shook off their struggles in the first two sets for an aggressive push to force the game to head into a fourth.
When a Hawai’i service sailed out, the ‘Eaters went on a 6-0 run for an 8-4 lead. The Rainbow Warriors scratched at the deficit, but the ‘Eaters would keep them at bay on an 8-3 run.
Stadick went on to slam three of the ‘Eaters last four kills to bury Hawai’i, 25-15.
Both teams would trudge through a finger-biting fourth set. The largest margin between the two teams came when Hawai’i attempted to pull away with a slight 19-16 advantage — the greatest lead in the set for either team — which was finished by a Tilburg slam grazed Saeta’s fingers.
Hitting an efficient .480 clip, UCI would later narrow the gap to 23-22 on another kill by Hodges, but Hawai’i would clinch the game with a kill to force match and game point at 24-22. After Hodges came up big with another successful swing that brought the game to 24-23, an errant service would send Hawai’i off with a victory to snap a two game skid while the ‘Eaters took on their second loss on the season.
“As a team, we know we are in a position where we need to get better,” coach Kniffin said. “It’s always about getting better whether it’s a week of practice or over a course of a match … and I felt we improved over the course of the match.”
UCI will have the next two days to prepare for No. 4 BYU (6-1, 2-0), yet another conference foe that the ‘Eaters are no stranger to. With the Cougars eliminating UCI in the MPSF Quarterfinals last season, the team will look to erase the bad taste this Friday and Saturday when they travel to Provo, Utah for a duo matches against the Cougars.