Facing set point four times over the weekend could not deter the UCI men’s volleyball team, as they prevailed in two five-set classics against two ranked conference opponents in No. 6 UCLA (11-7, 8-6) and No. 13 UC Santa Barbara (7-9, 4-9). The ‘Eaters would recover after blowing a two set lead against the Bruins on Friday at the Bren Events Center and made a comeback of their own against the Gauchos after being down 2-1 on Saturday at Crawford Court.
Despite giving up lengthy runs to the Bruins in the later sets, the seventh ranked ‘Eaters were able to come away with a 3-2 (25-23, 28-26, 22-25, 21-25, 17-15) victory during the annual Think Pink match.
A combination of a lackluster ‘Eater performance and a UCLA hot streak in the third and fourth sets brought the score even before UCI was able to eke out the fifth set triumph. Poise and composure were on full display as the home team prevailed while being outblocked (12.5-4.0), outhit (.354-.344) and outserved (9-8) by the visitor.
“This is a mature team,” said head coach David Kniffin, “For all the inconsistent volleyball we play, this is not a team that gets caught up in the hype or the momentum swings. They just play point to point volleyball. Just give a lot of credit to the type of kids they are.”
It was outside hitter Aaron Koubi’s coming-out party, as the oft-injured junior was able to crack the starting lineup and contribute a career-high 11 kills along with two aces and 10 digs against a quality opponent.
“He brings a lot to the court. He’s very volleyball savvy,” Kniffin said of Koubi. “He did what we needed his position player to do, and that’s something we’ve been searching for.”
The senior tandem of Tamir Hershko and Thomas Hodges combined for 41 kills, with Hershko notching a game-high 23 hitting at a .438 clip. Senior Michael Saeta anchored the offense with 52 set assists to go with his eight digs, four kills and one service ace, while freshman Scott Stadick contributed seven kills of his own and three block assists.
During a first set that saw 16 ties and eight lead changes (no lead larger than two), UCLA was able to go up 20-19 following a controversial player interference call, but committed a series of mishaps including a service error to clinch the set for the ‘Eaters.
The second set went much the same way, as the lead changed hands seven times and the Bruins were in control late 23-21. UCI rallied past a UCLA set point and took a 25-24 lead behind a double block from Stadick and Hershko. Hershko took the reins and knocked home a kill and a service ace on consecutive points to put the ‘Eaters ahead for good at 28-26.
The Bruins hit a whopping .667 in the third set and took advantage of a slew of ‘Eater errors to get on the scoreboard, and jumped out to a 10-3 lead at the start of the fourth. UCLA did not trail once in the fourth set, and again hit at a stout .520 to tie the match and take the momentum into the clincher.
As they have all season, the ‘Eaters turned it on for the fifth set, taking the first point off an ace from freshman Matthew Younggren and establishing a 4-1 lead early. The Bruins fought back to take the lead and match point at 14-13 but an attack error failed to put UCI away. With the score tied 15-15, Koubi and Hershko pounded back-to-back kills to end the match in favor of the ‘Eaters.
UC Santa Barbara
Advantages in hitting percentage (.388-.312) and team blocks (12.0-9.0) helped the ‘Eaters overcome some uncharacteristic errors, especially from the service line, in their 3-2 (25-23, 25-27, 18-25, 28-26, 18-16) comeback win over the Gauchos.
Four ‘Eaters registered double-digit kills, led again by Hershko with 17 (.417). Hodges recovered from a slow start to pound 14 (including nine on 10 attempts in the fourth set) while Stadick posted a career-high 13 and Koubi matched his career-high with 11.
Senior libero Dillon Hoffman paced the team with 11 digs, and Saeta stepped up to produce 48 set assists to go with five kills and five block assists.
The ‘Eaters took an early lead out of the gate and never looked back in the first set, although the Gauchos closed to within one point at 24-23 before a Hershko kill clinched the win.
Several untimely service errors hindered UCI in the second set, and although they held a 24-22 advantage, dropped five of the next six points to allow UCSB to tie the match at 1-1.
The Gauchos took control of the third set and had gradually improved their hitting percentage from set to set while the ‘Eaters’ had been dropping. UCSB opened up a 10-5 lead and cruised to the 25-18 decision.
UCI quickly fell behind 10-4 in the fourth set and was on the wrong end of a 19-14 score late in the game. Facing a four-point deficit at 21-17, the ‘Eaters finally came back to life, rattling off five in a row to take the lead. The Gauchos would go on to hold set point three times, but a pair of attack errors eventually did them in as UCI pushed the match to the final set.
“Sometimes it’s about just getting back on your feet,” said Hershko. “We kind of stopped pressing on the gas pedal. After the third set, middle of the fourth, we refreshed, restarted and started competing again.”
The ‘Eaters faced defeat yet again, down 14-12, but a kill by Stadick and two Hershko kills moved them in front 15-14. Plagued by double-digit service errors on the night, Hershko was on the line when UCI faced set point and executed several key jump serves.
“Every time I go to the line it’s a new serve,” said Hershko. “I just go out there and put the team in the best position to score, and keep fighting.”
Hershko was responsible for the final two kills that put the ‘Eaters over the top, winning the fifth set 18-16.
With the victory, UCI moves to 8-4 in MPSF play and 11-5 overall. The UCSB match was the last home game the ‘Eaters will play until they welcome Stanford to the Bren on April 7, as UCI will spend all of March on the road, highlighted by a March 11 matchup at No. 1 Ohio State.