A day after picking up a road victory against Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine women’s volleyball (17-2, 5-1) extended their win streak to five back at the Bren Events Center on Saturday, making it a short night with a clean sweep over UC Riverside.
The two wins of the week definitively solidified a new program best for the ‘Eaters, already surpassing the squad’s top overall win totals in 2016 (13-18) and 2015 (13-15).
Saturday’s win, one that keeps UCI unbeaten on home court at 7-0, also came on a special night where the ‘Eaters donned their bright pink uniforms in dedication to their “Think Pink” Breast Cancer Awareness match, one of a few selective events that the UC Irvine Athletics department organized as a part of a month long effort to raise awareness.
“I was really happy with the way we played,” head coach Ashlie Hain said. “I told the girls that I’m a fan of that style of volleyball, and we’ve seen them play like that before. I reminded them before the match…to be a best version of [themselves] and to remember a time where [they’ve] played up to the level that [they] are capable and they showed it.”
Junior opposite Harlee Kekauoha registered a double-double with a game-high 11 kills and 14 digs as well as two digs to pace UCI, but ultimately, it was a balanced attack for the ‘Eaters who had four players claim seven kills or more on the night.
“It always comes back to playing our brand of volleyball,” Kekauoha said. “It’s about scraping out the ugly plays that feel like they should go down and to keep fighting to push there. Our offense is great in every position and so we just need to keep grinding.”
Fellow junior outside hitter Haley Desales also had a double-double with 10 kills and 18 digs while senior outside hitter Brianna Montgomery and sophomore middle blocker Makayla Wolfe put up nine and eight of their own, respectively. Wolfe also helped clog the middle, assisting on two rejections.
The closest UCR ever got in the first set occurred on the second serve when an attack tipped of the fingers of Akpakpa. From there, the ‘Eaters pounced on a 7-0 run ignited by an avenging Akpakpa kill to establish an 8-1 advantage. While holding the Highlanders to just .037 hitting, the ‘Eaters went on another major scoring binge, finishing the period hitting an errorless .630 (17-0-27). With DeSales serving on the line, UCI collected 10 consecutively unanswered points to extend the lead to a whopping 22-6. Kills from Kekauoha and Akpakpa would seal it at 25-8.
Only 25 minutes had eclipsed when the scoreboard rang up the next set as the teams swapped sides.
“We knew that Riverside is a really defensive oriented team so just coming out strong from 0-0 to build momentum was really helpful,” Kekauoha said of her team’s quick start.
The Highlanders opened the second set with a kill and got up by one a few times early in the period before the ‘Eaters found their offensive groove again and utilized a pair of 5-0 runs to get up 13-7. Back to back kills from heavy hitters DeSales and Kekauoha kept the distance at 15-8, but UCR engaged in a little block party, turning away three consecutive ‘Eater strikes before thundering down an ace to cut into their deficit, 15-12.
UCR, however, would end their own spurt of momentum on a serving blunder that the ‘Eaters used to collect a kill and a payback double-block by Kekauoha and Wolfe.
Back up 18-12, UCI and UCR rallied back and forth, but with the considerable lead, the ‘Eaters held off their opposition as a monster DeSales solo block and Highlander attacking error ended the set, 25-17.
While the ‘Eaters hitting dipped to .216, having committed six errors on 37 attempts, the Highlanders nullified their nine attacks with nine miscues.
Akpakpa caught fire to start the third, exploiting UCR’s coverage in the middle by garnering four kills and assisting on a solo block to give the ‘Eaters a slight edge at 8-5. In what turned out to be their most efficient hitting period for the night (.146), the Highlanders dug deep to keep the set close. UCR would keep their deficit within two until DeSales went on a heat check of her own and fired away three kills on a 6-2 stretch that helped the ‘Eaters get to 19-13.
A Kekauoha service ace would later place UCI within three points of sealing the game. Perhaps a bit too anxious to put it away, the ‘Eaters committed three attacking errors that brought the Highlanders back to 23-21.
But with the issues virtually coming from their side of the night, UCI locked down and cleaned it up in the next two serves as DeSales struck one down before redshirt junior setter Ali Koumelis got way up for a rejection that caught UCR scrambling. The set would end there, 25-21.
“Everybody did their job…and we just played amazing volleyball,” coach Hain said. “It kind of gave me goosebumps to see them just work well together and have fun doing it.”
Looking to keep their momentum rolling, the ‘Eaters will have home court advantage on their side for their next two matches as the team will host UC Davis (11-9, 3-4) Saturday at 2:00pm in Crawford Court before welcoming conference frontrunner Cal Poly (17-2, 7-0) back at the Bren next Tuesday at 7:00pm.
To continue reaping the benefits of their recent success, coach Hain believes the team can draw from their success Saturday.
“We just have to focus on building on how we played tonight and talk about how to maintain that,” coach Hain said. “We always knew we were capable of playing like that…it’s just come and gone throughout the season. I think it gets hard for teams to stay with it in October…it’s that midseason sort of thing. Staying motive, staying excited and staying intense no matter who you face…I think that’s the message right now. We have a good chance like everyone else in our conference as long as we play our style of volleyball.”