With a crowd of 1,902 ecstatic fans filling the Bren Events Center with jubilant bellows and howls, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team kept their eyes beamed forward, calm and collected, preparing to receive and play for the next point. Heeding the words of head coach David Kniffin, they were simply playing their own game, a game within a game, a point at a time. Everyone else in the building however, acknowledged that UCI was leading two sets to one and the next point in this fourth set could potentially put away the Bruins and send the ‘Eaters into the MPSF semifinals — a feat that was cut short last year in an upsetting 3-1 loss to BYU at Provo, Utah.
Taking a little running start, UCLA’s sophomore opposite Michael Ma’a launched the ball over the net and towards junior outside hitter Aaron Koubi, who surveyed it as it descended into his arms. With his hands clasped together, knees slightly bent, he popped the ball up with his forearms toward Senior setter Michael Saeta, who lobbed it back to Koubi.
When he returned to the starting line-up after months of nursing a shoulder injury, coach Kniffin did not expect Koubi, as he doesn’t expect any of his players, to bear the weight of the ‘Eaters offensively. The Cannes native, however, did make an immediate impact, posting double-digit kills in the last five outings. To earn the home court advantage at the Bren in this very match, Koubi struck down 15 kills against Stanford and 21 the very next night for a five-set victory over Pepperdine.
“The irony of this was that I was telling Aaron throughout the entire match that the outcome of [the match] was not dependant on his play but the confidence that he gave to his teammates,” coach Kniffin said of his expectations for Koubi. “I guess there are various ways to instill confidence.”
Already slamming down 18 kills on this night so far, it was only fitting that Koubi would take off one more time, hanging above the net to receive Saeta’s perfect set-up for a powerful bomb that rocketed off a hand of a UCLA defender. Point. Set. Match.
Five years ago, during the last MPSF quarterfinal meeting between No. 4 UCI and No. 5 UCLA, the ‘Eaters had emerged victorious in a 3-1 finale at the Bren. It was déjà vu Saturday evening when UCI took down UCLA, both of whom were, again, seeded at fourth and fifth respectively, in another 3-1 decision at the Bren to advance to the MPSF semifinals. This time around, the ‘Eaters’ are slated for a 7:30 p.m. showdown this Thursday against No.1 Long Beach State at Walter Pyramid.
While Koubi was the high man for the ‘Eaters with 19 kills, continuing to demonstrate why UCI had missed him so much when he was sidelined, the senior leadership continued to show the strong collective support that they have fostered for the team on the season.
“I think each night … it’s a different guy that takes the lead and that’s what make us strong,” Koubi said following the match. “If one guy doesn’t feel really good we know that at least two more guys will be here to step up.”
Senior opposite Tamir Hershko, who earned first-team all conference honors, racked up 12 kills as fellow senior Thomas Hodges, who took second-team all conference honors, contributed 10 kills of his own.
Saeta, another first-team all conference recipient, lobbed up 44 assists to go with seven digs and three kills on three attempts — one of which put away the third set and gave UCI a two-set advantage.
In the middle, freshman Scott Stadick, who was named the MPSF Freshman of the Year made the most of his first postseason match, connecting on seven kills on an errorless 10 attempts (.700) while garnering a match-high six total blocks. With a solo block early in the fourth set, Stadick has surpassed Aaron Harrell’s 11-year school record in single season rejections with 23.
“It’s so hard for freshman middles to be the anchors of our program but we ask our middles to do a lot for us,” coach Kniffin said. “We tell them that our offense and defense will run through the middle of the court and so Scott’s a competitor and I think he loves this opportunity that he’s given … he’s grateful for it and he’s just going to do his best everyday whether it is in practice or in a match and when you do that over a course of time … you know … things kind of lineup.”
While UCLA managed to record four aces, they had committed 21 service errors, nine of which came in a second set that UCI had won on a Bruin’s error at the line. The ‘Eaters also outhit the Bruins .374-.259 as well as eight more digs than their opposition (29-21)
Following a Stadick and Hodges double-block and an errant UCLA attack that sailed far off course, UCI took the first three-point lead of the first set, 21-18. The ‘Eaters kept their three-point advantage on a kill from freshman Matthew Younggren, but then UCLA went on to turn the tide, scoring five unanswered to reach set point, 24-22. Off a feed from Ma’a, junior opposite Jake Arnitz, who finished with a team-high 18 kills for the Bruins, struck the set-point to get an early jump on the ‘Eaters and to put them on edge. Yet UCI saw the first loss as an opportunity to calm down and lean on their own game.
“It’s almost nice to get the loss out of the way sometimes to get the jitters out and remind ourselves [that] we just need to play one-point-at-a-time volleyball,” coach Kniffin said. “We had it … with fits and spurts in game one, but I thought we had it as a collective unit for the rest of the match.”
The ‘Eaters hunkered down in a tightly contested second set. While UCI only took the lead twice in the period — on the opening point from a double rejection and a later taking on a 3-2 lead from a Hodges’ kill — the ‘Eaters took a definitive leap forward when Koubi went up for consecutive slams to put UCI up 21-20. Following a Hershko kill, a Bruin attacking error and a pair of miscues on the service line, knotted the match up.
“This is a game of rallies so things turn around pretty quickly,” Stadick said. “I think we were a bit antsy [to start], but we calmed down and settled into our game after that … it’s a big match and I think we’re feeling it a little bit.”
With Saeta serving to kick off the third set, the ‘Eaters came out with their strongest start of the night on a 4-0 run that forced UCLA to call a time-out. Stadick had a hand in three of UCI’s first four points, breaking in the set with two swooping slams and double teaming with Hodges for a stuff to cap off the run. Later, Stadick and Saeta had a little role reversal as the seven-footer gracefully tapped the ball over his head for a high set that Saeta sent straight below the Bruins feet. A subsequent double block gave UCI their largest lead of the night, 12-6, forcing UCLA head coach John Speraw to call yet another time-out. While UCI’s hitting soared to .458, the Bruins attacking dropped to .120 as the ‘Eaters would rout the rest of the set. Saeta delivered his signature trick tip off a setup from senior middle blocker Andrew Benz to end the third.
The Bruins were the first to a three-point lead (10-7) on an ace from Arnitz and extended the lead with a subsequent kill from sophomore opposite Dylan Missry. UCLA maintained a three-point separation from the ‘Eaters on another Arnitz kill but then UCI went on a 3-0 run to tie the matchup at 13-13. The Bruins and the ‘Eaters would go toe to toe in a set that would go on to see seven ties before Koubi helped UCI take a 21-20 lead. After recording four kills in the first set, Koubi went on to record five kills in each of the next three, including the game-winner that would end the set and the match, 25-22.
“I was just really proud of the boys being able to hold the line for each other,” coach Kniffin said. “That’s something we’ve been leaning on all year…if we are really going to play our best, we really have to trust each other … nobody flinches … nobody loses confidence. I love that we are battle tested and we could just execute on it.”