No. 5 UC Irvine men’s volleyball (18-6, 12-5) had much to celebrate for last Friday night in their long-awaited return home to the Bren Events Center, their first since late February.
On a night where the program honored past members of the 2007 national championship team on their 10-year anniversary of defeating IPFW in Columbus, Ohio to capture UCI’s first NCAA title, the ‘Eaters of today locked in an MPSF quarterfinal home match with their second consecutive 3-1 victory over Stanford and a timely four-set loss for No.6 UCLA in the hands of No.4 Hawai’i.
“This team is showing a lot of grit,” coach Kniffin said. “When we miss a few [opportunities]…we get together to figure it out and [to] back each other up. I think we match up well with teams in terms of being able to block balls against big attacks, being able to serve tough against good passing…so if we just remember to do what we do and what got us here…we will be a handful for anybody. ”
With the win, UCI will sit in the fourth seed where they will entertain fifth-seeded UCLA at the Bren this Saturday, April 15th, at 7:00pm to open MPSF post-season play.
“We are happy to be hosting…no question,” head coach David Kniffin said following Friday’s victory. “It’s always good to be playing in front of your home crowd. I think it says a lot about where we are at to be in the top four…and [to be] playing some good volleyball.”
A handful of ‘Eaters provided for a well balanced attack that helped secure the four-set victory. Junior Aaron Koubi continued to display his powerful hitting capabilities with a team-high 15 kills to go along with 11 digs. With Koubi in the starting line-up, the ‘Eaters have won 9 of their last 10 games.
“Koubi came to us almost two years ago now…with a bum shoulder and he’s spent a lot of time working on it,” coach Kniffin said. “So he’s just now coming back to what I think is probably his full speed…which is fun to watch. He’s obviously a dynamic player…and as [this] game shows, when he plays, he has a lot of savy.”
Despite hitting just .276, senior Tamir Hershko still picked up 14 kills and six blocks. Senior Thomas Hodges, another power hitter for the ‘Eaters, posted nine kills and two aces.
Freshman Scott Stadick made all of his 7-foot presence felt from the middle, assisting on a career-high nine blocks for 12 total rejections on the night. Freshman Matthew Younggren also filled the middle with Stadick with four blocks and hit an errorless .714 clip for five kills on seven attempts.
Senior Michael Saeta brought out his utility pack with 51 set assists, six kills, three aces, and seven digs.
Stanford struggled with their swing, hitting a collective .164 for the match. Senior Gabriel Vega led the Cardinal with 20 kills but hit just .140.
UCI got off to a strong start with an 11-7 run, a period that Koubi got going with a few early kills and a service ace.
The Cardinal, however, were vengeful from their four-set loss to the ‘Eaters a week earlier and rallied back to tie the set up, 16-16.
Then, Hodges came up with two crucial swings to help UCI take a 21-19 lead, forcing Stanford to take a time out. Hodges walked out with another big kill as a Cardinal service error put UCI up three, 23-20.
Stanford elongated the set, clawing back to knot it up 23-23 all as UCI would reach match point five more times before Saeta set Hershko up with a thunderous kill to put away the set, 32-30, and to bring the 1,471 fans in attendance to their feet.
Stanford garnered just eight kills—that were nullified by their eight errors for a .000 clip—in the second set and after evening it up with the ‘Eaters, 6-6, on a Vega kill, UCI would go on to claim the lead without relinquishing it for the rest of the set.
A kill and service ace from Hodges put the ‘Eaters out front again before UCI went on a 8-2 run capped by a Koubi kill and Saeta service ace that added some considerable separation, 17-9, that the Cardinal would not be able to recover from.
Vega got Stanford going on a kill that ignited a 5-0 run to bring the Cardinal as close as three (17-14), but the ‘Eaters took care of business as a double block from Hershko and Stadick helped put the ‘Eaters up two sets.
As they had struggled with in recent matches, UCI would give way to Stanford in the third set. The Cardinal shook off some of their rust and saw their best hitting with .321 to keep the match alive.
The Cardinal scored six unanswered to open the set before Hodges got the ‘Eaters on the board and Koubi connected on two slams and soared high for a solo block to cut the deficit to two, 7-5.
“It feels really good [to be back],” Koubi said of his return from injury. “I feel like I have been able to make an impact because I can pass the ball and relieve the big guys…so Thomas [Hodges] and Tamir [Hershko]…so that they can focus on hitting and I think that’s the main difference that I’ve been able to make.
Koubi returned a few serves later to get his hands in on a double block alongside Younggren to bring UCI within one before sophomore Karl Apfelbach, who finished with five kills and two block assists for the night, checked in and recorded his first kill to knot the match up at 10-10 apiece.
Back to back kills produced some separation for Stanford, 14-12, but Stadick started and capped off a 4-0 run to push the ‘Eaters out front, 15-14.
After the Cardinal committed an errant swing, another time out was called by Stanford who would subsequently lock down and reclaim a two-point advantage at 20-18. UCI rallied and tied up the set four times before a double block from Stadick and Koubi threatened to bring the match to an end, 25-24.
In a quick turn of events, a Stanford kill, ‘Eater attacking error, and a service ace from freshman Eric Beatty gave the set to Stanford, 27-25.
Much like they had done during their first meeting against the Cardinal, UCI doubled down with their aggressive attack. With two kills from Hershko, blocks from Stadick and Apfelbach, followed by a Saeta ace, UCI carried their momentum on a 7-0 run to garner a 18-12 lead. Saeta would then close the match out on back to back kills, the last of which was a trick flick that sparked an eruption of applause and cheers to drown out the night.
“We’re feeling good but we’re playing one game at a time,” Koubi said. “We don’t try to see that far [into the future]…we’re really confident but we’re still working hard in practice and focusing on the next game. That’s the mentality.”