As junior midfielder Harlee Kekauoha makes her way to the service line, the Titans are attempting to brace themselves as best they could. With the Big West conference ace-per-set leader of the ace-leading team up on deck, they understand the repercussions of not getting low and ready to receive.
Kekauoha methodically tosses the ball up and lifts both her feet off the floor. Bending her knees slightly back, it appears as though she is gliding in the air. With a low grunt, she slams the ball hard over the net where an unprepared Titan outside hitter could all but toss her hands up in an attempt to control it, but the velocity and power is too much. The ball sails out, getting the ‘Eaters to set point.
Back at the line once more, Kekauoha dribbles the ball a few times, tosses it up, lifts her feet off the floor, bends her knees slightly in the air, and fires—all in the same fluid motion. This time, however, Fullerton braces well and softens the serve, popping it right back up to organize an attack.
Setting the ball towards their upper right, a Titan opposite hitter goes high and slaps the ball hard, but junior middle blocker Idara Akpakpa and freshman outside hitter Bria Beale were already there for the ‘Eaters, meeting her up over the net for a timely double rejection to send the team in a frenzy and cap the match off.
The closing points of Saturday’s match between the UC Irvine women’s volleyball team (21-4, 9-3) and Cal State Fullerton (5-20, 1-10) exemplified the type of rhythm the ‘Eaters were playing with all night long: Their service game had been off the charts and on the other side of the net, nothing the Titans retaliated with had perturbed them.
Following a 3-0 sweep against Riverside, UCI picked up their second straight sweep Saturday night over Cal State Fullerton.
The ‘Eaters dominated in nearly every facet of the game, outhitting the Titans (0.282-0.046) and garnering more kills (45-19), assists (44-19) and digs (49-38) than their opponent. The most glaring advantage came from the service line where the ‘Eaters managed to blast out eight aces.
“I was really happy with the way we played and the way we came out strong at the service line,” head coach Ashlie Hain said. “I thought we played UCI volleyball which is to be relentless on defense, quick transitions, and tough serving.”
Akpakpa topped all players with 11 kills on .733 hitting, but the ‘Eaters virtually thrived on a balanced attack as Kekauoha and fellow junior Haley DeSales snagged nine of their own.
Kekauoha was also red hot from the service line, collecting five of the ‘Eaters eight aces on the night.
“I felt pretty pumped coming into the game,” Kekauoha said. “I kind of just went after it and not really taking anything off [the serve]…if anything I just adjusted where I wanted to serve the all and that really helped.”
In the first set, a 12-2 run — which featured three of Kekauoha’s five aces on the nigh t— got the ‘Eaters out on a comfortable 15-6 lead. Fullerton ended the run with a kill, but junior outside hitter Haley DeSales, who finished eight digs, and three block assists to go along with her nine kills, pushed the ‘Eaters right back with a kill that sparked another major 7-3 run to bring the lead up to 12, 22-10.
Joining Kekauoha in the ace party, DeSales earned herself one from the line before sophomore middle blocker Makayla Wolfe and senior outside hitter Brianna Montgomery struck down the ‘Eaters next two points to end the set at 25-12.
Set two began largely in favor of the ‘Eaters as Kekauoha, Montgomery, and Akpakpa broke UCI out with four unanswered kills. Fullerton rallied back with a few swings and capitalized on miscommunications on the ‘Eaters’ side of the net to cut the deficit to one, 15-14.
However, UCI would weather Fullerton’s comeback. On a double-block from Akpakpa and Kekauoha followed by another ace from the Long Beach, Calif. native, and back to back strikes, the ‘Eaters were right back up by five, 19-14.
From that point on the ‘Eaters kept at least a five point distance from the Titans before Kekauoha sealed the set, 25-19, with a kill off a perfect set up from redshirt junior setter Ali Koumelis, who is second in the Big West in assists per set at 10.27.
Hitting .320 in the third, their best percentage of the three periods on the night, the ‘Eaters routed the Titans to complete the sweep. Just like the second set, the ‘Eaters got off on a 4-0 start and would go on to close period on a 7-0 run with Kekauoha’s ace and Akpakpa and Beale’s double block putting the final touches to a 25-10 set victory.
“Idara [Akpakpa] went off today,” Kekauoha said of her teammate. “She really set the tone on the net and so did Ali [Koumelis]…who set our offense. The freshman, Bria Beale and Cassie Stewart really came in and contributed and added value to the team.”
While the ‘Eaters kicked off their final month of conference action with two consecutives sweeps, the squad will be met with quite the challenge this upcoming weekend, traveling first to Santa Barbara before heading over to San Louis Obispo to face off against Cal Poly, who remains undefeated in conference play.
“It’s just going to be a tough road trip,” coach Hain said. “I think our girls were kind of disappointed with the way we came out against Cal Poly last time so hopefully we learn from it and we can come out more calm…more aggressive and less nervous.”