UCI men’s volleyball split a pair of conference matches last week, currently putting them at fifth in the MPSF standings. The ‘Eaters traveled to Riverside, where they handled Cal Baptist 3-1 before returning home and falling to a streaking USC squad 3-1.
UCI overcame a slow start to dominate Cal Baptist (3-8, 1-6) at Van Dyne Gym on Wednesday, responding with three straight sets after dropping the first to lock up the 3-1 win (27-29, 25-15, 25-17, 25-16).
Cal Baptist was held to just a .092 hitting percentage thanks to a 11.0-6.5 block advantage for the ‘Eaters, led by a whopping seven block assists from freshman Matt Younggren and five from senior Thomas Hodges.
Hodges also led the ‘Eaters, who hit .392 as a team, with a game-high 16 kills followed by Younggren and senior Andrew Benz, with eight apiece. Senior Michael Saeta was the utility man, stuffing the stat sheet with six kills, 34 set assists, four aces, five digs and three blocks. Senior libero Dillon Hoffman bolstered the defensive effort with a match-high 12 digs, while junior Tucker Pikula added eight of his own.
The Lancers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set and would not trail again until UCI rattled off six in a row to take a 20-17 edge. Facing double set point late, Cal Baptist rallied to move ahead 25-24 before eventually taking the set 29-27.
UCI came alive in the second set, taking advantage of the Lancer errors and opening up a 4-1 score.
The ‘Eaters never trailed and ended the set on a 7-2 run that saw three service aces and three kills.
As the third set began, the ‘Eaters really started to find their groove, taking nine of their first 10 points on the back of steady serving from Saeta and junior Reid Dominguez and two kills each from Younggren and Hodges. Efficient hitting (.545) helped UCI cruise to a 25-17 win as Saeta aced the clincher.
The fourth set mirrored the third as UCI ripped off six in a row to start and maintained a sizable lead until a Cal Baptist attack error gave them the 25-16 win.
UCI could not hold off the visiting Trojans in a dogfight on Friday night, as USC (3-7, 2-5) knocked off the ‘Eaters 3-1 (25-23, 40-42, 25-23, 25-23) in a match that saw the longest set in conference play since 2008.
Saeta paced the ‘Eaters with 21 kills (including an incredible 14 in the second set) to go with four service aces that put him second in UCI history with 130.
Freshman Scott Stadick registered a career high 12 kills and junior David Parker came off the bench to add eight, a season high. Younggren manned the net and notched five blocks, while Hoffman led both teams with 11 digs, and sophomore Dante Chakravorti had a season-high 41 set assists.
The ‘Eaters got off to a sluggish start, committing a handful of errors in the early going to give USC a 13-9 lead. They would fight back to go up 18-17 before the Trojans made a run led by senior Lucas Yoder, who would finish with a game-high 29 kills.
Yoder and Trojan sophomore Gianluca Grasso led USC to an 18-10 advantage in the second set that looked to go the Trojan’s way as well. UCI caught fire and reeled off five straight to come within one point and eventually tie 24-24. The two teams traded points as the Trojans fed Yoder and Grasso repeatedly while the ‘Eaters continued to dial Saeta’s number. Saeta was responsible for 10 of his team’s last 14 points via service aces or kills, as UCI prevailed 42-40, surviving 12 set points and evening the match at one set all.
“Saeta’s a competitor,” said head coach David Kniffin. “At some point, technique and tactics go out the window and you feed the guy that just wants to win more than anything else in the world. Michael will take that competitiveness, and it just kind of lifts him to a different level.”
Unfortunately, UCI could not build off that momentum, and dropped another close set in the third, 25-23. USC continued to fire at all cylinders and held a 21-13 lead in the fourth set before a 10-2 ‘Eater run threatened to extend the match. A Yoder kill ended matters, as the Trojans held on for the 25-23 victory, dropping UCI to 5-3 in conference and 8-4 overall.
“What that came down to for us was that, unfortunately, as valiant as the effort was off the bench, we had a slow start for a few guys that are key for us and who we expect to carry a big load,” said Kniffin. “They were awful tonight.”
The ‘Eaters look to bounce back next Friday, Feb. 10, as they take on No. 3 Long Beach State at the Bren.