When the match goes five sets, the ‘Eaters just don’t lose. No. 5 UC Irvine men’s volleyball’s 3-2 down-to-the-wire victory on Saturday gives them an 8-0 record in such matches this year.
No. 8 Pepperdine (10-11, 8-10) was sent away empty-handed after a 27-29, 25-19, 25-18, 21-25, 17-15 decision on senior night at the Bren
“We’re getting comfortable being uncomfortable in tight games,” said Head Coach David Kniffin, “I know I preach the importance of that, so it’s nice to see the guys step up and embrace those moments.”
The seniors, whose home countries range from Australia to Israel to southern California, rose to the occasion in their final regular season home game of their careers. Thomas Hodges, Andrew Benz, Michael Saeta, Dillon Hoffman, and Tamir Hershko were honored in a ceremony immediately following the game.
“Such a special and diverse group of kids, diverse in every aspect,” said Kniffin, “In the way they play the game and where they’re from and culturally, their backgrounds. It’s been a really fun group for me to work with and there’s no question they’ve taught me a ton about the game and coaching, it’s been an honor.”
The senior presence on this ‘Eater team cannot be denied. Hoffman, the starting libero, paces the team in digs with 235 on the year, as hitters Hershko and Hodges are nearly neck-and-neck leading the way in kills with 296, and 289 respectively. Benz has managed a .470 hitting percentage in action off the bench this season, while Saeta has provided an all-around skill and ability at the setter position that even Kniffin has never seen before.
“Saeta’s a big part of why our offense works and it’s not necessarily his setting,” said Kniffin, “When he’s in the front row you have to worry about another hitter in the lineup so he’s making everybody think. Another way to phrase that is Michael puts a lot of stress on other teams just by the nature of what he does.”
Saeta’s match-high four service aces gave him a new school season record with a whopping 62 on the season. He also contributed 60 set assists, seven kills, and eight digs on the night, all while running the offense and embodying the idea of what the team calls a “servant leader.”
“You’re not a leader because you want to be,” said Saeta. “It’s something that kind of arises out of your dedication to the program, to the team and to the guys. When I’m out there as a setter, I have the ability to call plays and tell guys how I want to run the offense, and that gives me some vocal leadership, but at the same time we really have a 12-legged monster out there that’s really one unit.”
Hershko and junior Aaron Koubi were on the business end of most of Saeta’s assists, each notching a game-high 21 kills and hitting over .400 in the match. Hodges was not far behind with 17 kills as UCI outhit the Waves .354-.256, while Hoffman tied a career high with 19 digs. Freshmen middle blockers Scott Stadick and Matthew Younggren combined for eight kills, and Stadick had a match high six blocks while Younggren added a respectable three.
UCI fell behind early in the first set and had a hard time holding serve, whether it be through poor execution or service errors, but came up with enough big plays to stay within a point or two. The 26 total service errors are higher than normal for the ‘Eaters, but Hershko was able to step up and fire three straight aces to take a 20-19 lead over Pepperdine.
“For what we’ve been doing this season that’s kind of atypical for us from the service line,” Kniffin said, “but guys were big with their serve when they needed to be.”
After the two teams traded points late, another UCI service error and a Waves kill turned the tide in favor of Pepperdine who took the first set 29-27.
UCI responded in the second set, with the score tied 8-8, going on a 7-1 run that included two Saeta service aces. The ‘Eaters would continue to hold the lead to close out the set at 25-19.
Pepperdine never led in the third set as UCI continued to dominate. The ‘Eaters took the third set 25-18 and a 2-1 lead heading to the fourth. But the Waves were able to answer and posted their highest hitting percentage by set in the fourth, and tied up the match 2-2 after a 25-21 decision.
After opening up a 6-2 lead early in the fifth, the ‘Eaters held a 12-10 advantage before the Waves took three in a row. Facing two set points, UCI was able to overcome and two kills from Hodges gave them the 17-15 victory.
The ‘Eaters close the regular season with a 19-6 overall record and 13-5 mark in MPSF play, good for fourth in the best conference and the country. Saeta, who was a redshirt on the last UCI team to win a national championship, finds some similarities between that team and his current squad.
“I think we have the willpower, the tenacity, and the team to actually execute a point-to-point mentality,” Saeta said. “I think we have that this year and something we definitely had in 2013.”
UCI will host UCLA on April 15th at the Bren in the MPSF quarterfinals, the first playoff game in what looks to be a deep postseason run, one that Kniffin thinks can end by hoisting the trophy.
“We know we’re relevant in that conversation. We know that we’re capable and I think that we’re starting to understand how to do this as a collective.”