Having won 12 of their last 13 matches, No.4 UC Irvine seemed to have hit an impressive stride that was enough to prove that the ‘Eaters were in national championship contending form. After some spotty matches and a few head-scratching losses early on in the season, a month long road trip, one where they beat the nation’s best in then-first ranked Ohio State, Pepperdine, and Stanford, proved that the team was as a good a competitor as any, just as head coach David Kniffin and the rest of the team believed they were.
But even with their success, when pitted against No.1 Long Beach State this year, the ‘Eaters struggled immensely. In their first meeting back in February, the 49ers ended the night early with a 3-0 sweep at the Bren Events Center. A few weeks later during their second encounter in March, the ‘Eaters took a set, but ultimately lost as they witnessed their worst offensive outing on the season, hitting just .105 (40-28-114). This last match at Walter Pyramid marked the ‘Eaters’ only loss in the last 13 games.
And when UCI returned to the Pyramid on Thursday evening for the MPSF Semifinals, the 49ers were, once again, UCI’s kryptonite as they completed their season sweep of the ‘Eaters in a 3-0 (25-19, 25-22, 25-19) victory that snapped a nine-game win streak and, most importantly, knocked UCI out of MPSF postseason contention.
“We do believe we put together a strong body of work this year and we do hold on to hope that that continues,” head coach David Kniffin said “We did some amazing things this year…Long Beach [was] just a little bit better than us tonight. Every time we crept in and started making a run…they just steadied right up and took advantage of just a couple of little things here and there…any time you could hold the number one team in America with a hitting efficiency under .300…feeling pretty good…just didn’t execute on our side of it.”
UCI struggled offensively and did not hit much better than they did the last time they faced the 49ers, recording their second lowest hitting percentage for the year at .112. Junior Aaron Koubi, who has steadily become ‘Eaters X-factor offensively since his emergence from injury, hit in the negatives (-.167) and was held to just four kills for the match.
“Koubi isn’t going to qualify for All-American because he hasn’t played enough matches this year because he hasn’t been healthy,” coach Kniffin said. “So it’s a shame that he won’t get an honest look there…but I will say that Koubi has been playing All-American volleyball for the 12 to 13 matches [that] he’s been in. Every guy has an off night…I would say…I have to figure out how to prep him and recover from that better…so I’ll be evaluating that.”
Playing in what would turn out to be their last collegiate match, UCI’s seniors provided some rare sparks that gave UCI a bit of hope within the upsetting loss. Senior opposite Tamir Hershko stepped up for the ‘Eaters and went on to garner a team-best nine kills as fellow fourth-year outside hitter Thomas Hodges contributed seven kills. Setter Michael Saeta had three slams and 27 assists as Andrew Benz checked in during the third set to bring down two kills in two swings.
Freshman Scott Stadick also had a solid night and did not waver away from the pressure on the big stage, adding two solo blocks—good for 25 on the year—to go along with five kills on eight swings (5-2-8). While it was a heartbreaking night for the Wisconsin native, Stadick admitted that his first year experience on the team was nothing short of phenomenal.
“It would have been more fun after a win but it’s been a great year,” Stadick said. “We’ve done some pretty cool stuff this year and we beat some pretty good teams and it’s been quite an experience. I love our seniors…all five of them…they’re great guys…it’s unfortunate we couldn’t get a win for them.”
Long Beach’s usual suspects headed their offensive attack as sophomore outside hitter TJ DeFalco, who was named MPSF Player of the Year, finished with 10 kills and four total blocks while fellow sophomore opposite Kyle Ensing also put up 10 kills and popped up a match-best eight digs.
The 49ers also read and reacted well on the receiving end, forcing the ‘Eaters to second guess on their attacking options while ultimately out-blocking UCI, 10.0-3.0.
“Long Beach just plays very steady,” Kniffin said. “I think something they do very well with their blocking is that they got pretty soft hands so even if they’re not blocking the ball very hard…if it hits the block at all…it really seems to slow down and doesn’t take an aggressive direction change into the stands like some of the more rigid blocks you see out there.”
In an opening set where they had never led, UCI attempted to plug away and came within five, 23-18, on a Koubi kill. Long Beach’s striking, however, was too much for the ‘Eaters. Hitting a .571 clip while holding the ‘Eaters to .167, kills from Ensing and DeFalco closed the door on the first set, 25-19.
The ‘Eaters got situated in the second set and began to show glimpses of the confident mid-season team that had earned them a fourth seeding in the conference tourney. With a Hershko kill and two long, sweeping kills from Stadick, UCI took an early 3-1 lead and would keep the advantage at 9-7 on a signature Saeta no-look quick flick and 49er attacking error.
Behind the strong support of over 2,000 fans, Long Beach would not go away and rallied back with a 6-3 run that allowed them to overtake their first lead on the set. After going back and forth on the next few serves, a Long Beach attacking error and another swooping Stadick kill—his third in the set—knotted the set up, 21-21.
The momentum left the ‘Eaters as quickly as it came in the next three serves. Following Stadick’s emphatic kill, Koubi was turned back before Stadick’s two attacks sailed long to give Long Beach set point, 24-21. On the final serve, a Koubi attack sailed out as the 49ers took a two set advantage heading into the third.
After taking up an early deficit to start the third, Hershko and Benz emerged with three crucial blocks—two of which came from back-to-back swings from Benz—in a period that helped UCI come within one, 16-15. Put as the ‘Eaters found some life offensively, Long Beach answered back, going for three unanswered to pull out a 19-15 lead again.
UCI shaved the deficit in half, 19-17, on errors from the 49ers’ end of the net, but once again, Long Beach answered, this time, with a 4-0 run for a 23-17 lead. Coach Kniffin called a time-out, the second in the set and fourth of the match, in an attempt to settle UCI down.
The ‘Eaters never quite found their rhythm and with a swing that glazed off the hands of Hershko for match point (25-19), Long Beach effectively stamped their ticket to the MPSF championship, leaving UCI’s season looming in the uncertainty of whether or not they could snag an at-large bid and another shot in the NCAA tournament.
On Sunday morning, it was revealed that Hawai’i and BYU would take the two at-large bids, leaving UCI the odd team out and effectively ending their season. Understanding that their loss to the 49ers may very well be their last match of the season, coach Kniffin reflected on the future of the program in the same post-match presser, noting the vast amount of confidence he has for his core group of players and the potential they have to build the program for years to come.
“I’m really excited about the kids we’ve got coming in,” coach Kniffin said. “Obviously it’s never a guarantee when you bring in a number one recruit in the country and it’s never a guarantee that he is going to make good, but for Scott to be Freshman of the Year in our conference is such a strong showing so early and so that’s big for us. As is usual in the UC Irvine program, there is a lot of guys you probably wouldn’t have heard of or hear of until they are in year three or four and come out and surprise some people just because they’ve been working hard behind the scenes. We obviously lose some familiar faces…but the kids that are right behind them are strong and the recruits that are coming in are strong…we’ll be a tough team to match up with.”