UC Irvine women’s volleyball (22-7, 10-6) closed out their 2017 regular season campaign on the right note, taking down UC Santa Barbara (8-20, 7-9) in four sets, 3-1 (25-18, 23-25, 25-21, 25-18).
The victory marks the ‘Eaters’ 22nd overall win and finishes third in conference play, which is the program’s highest since 2009 when the team finished 22-8 and had tied for second.
“It’s nice to see all of our hard work pay off,” head coach Ashlie Hain said of the journey in the regular season. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons…some hard lessons this year and some positive reinforcements in what we are doing well going forward so I think it’s just a nice foundation to build from.”
Appropriately, the win also came on the team’s senior night as the program gladly rewarded seniors Luna Tsujimoto, Brianna Montgomery, and Chloe Hakim in their final game at the Bren.
“I’m really glad we were able to win on our last match in the Bren,” Tsujimoto said. “It’s been emotional…it’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but it’s been really fun.”
UCI made a collective effort to avenge their five set loss to UCSB from two weeks ago as the team outhit their opposition, .359-.232. The ‘Eaters’ composed serve-receive game was also a major point of contention heading into the game.
“We were definitely able to steady out and focus on a lot of things we’ve worked on in practice,” coach Hain said. “After Hawai’i, it was just steadying out our serve-receive and then controlling one of the best players in the country, Lindsey Ruddins, and I thought we did a great job of that.”
Ruddins, who leads the nation with a kill average of 5.91, destroyed the ‘Eaters the last time the two teams met with 32 strikes, nine of which came in the fifth period—the most that any collegiate player had during a fifth set this season.
While Ruddins was a handful for the ‘Eaters again Tuesday night, doing it all with 18 kills, five aces, and 13 digs, UCI had made her looks quite difficult as she hit just a .169 clip on the night.
Contending at the net, the UCI turned back 16 attempts on the night with sophomore middle blocker Makayla Wolfe rising and getting a hand on seven of them, a new career high for the Chatsworth, Calif. native.
“It comes back to communicating and knowing where your hitters are at and as a team, when we talk it’s a lot easier with blocking,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe also fired up a personal best 16 kills on .536 hitting to lead the ‘Eaters on the evening.
Junior middle blocker Idara Akpakpa was also a force on the floor, bringing down 13 kills as fellow juniors Harlee Kekauoha and Haley Desales registered 11 apiece.
Akpakpa got the show going with a kill that ignited a 3-0 run that helped the ‘Eaters breakout on a 16-9 lead. On back-to-back bombs from Wolfe and DeSales, the ‘Eaters extended the lead to 18-10.
The Gauchos would retaliate on a 4-0 run in a period where Ruddins fired across two consecutive aces.
However, UCI did do their best to contain Ruddins in the first set, limiting her to four strikes as the Gauchos hit only .258 to open the match.
Meanwhile, the ‘Eaters emerged with what would become their best hitting set on the night at .448. Following the four-point UCSB run with the ‘Eaters still possessing an 18-14 edge, both teams would trade point for point on the next five serves before DeSales and Akpakpa brought down two thunderous kills to extend UCI’s lead to seven, 23-16. UCSB committed a service error to bring the ‘Eaters to set point before Wolfe came up and denied Ruddins to close the period at 25-18.
Set number two was airtight with seven ties and neither team pulling a lead larger than three. UCI did possess that single three point lead, 16-13, capitalizing on a Ruddins attacking error and two successful swings from Wolfe and Kekauoha but the Gauchos came right back to close in on the separation.
The set would come down to the final eight serves when the Gauchos came through with a 6-0 that wiped away an ‘Eater 22-19 lead and had suddenly turned the tide, placing them at set-point 24-22. A UCSB kill would knot the match up, 25-22.
In the third set, the ‘Eaters had a string of rhythmic three point runs that kept the Gauchos at bay. The last of such runs got UCI to 23-19 before Kekauoha sent a rocket that ricocheted off the ground for set point as Akpakpa put it away, 25-21, with a strike of her own.
Montgomery, who finished the match with eight kills, kicked off the fourth with a hammer to get the ‘Eaters up first. Much like the second, the Gauchos would not let up, locking the game up three times before claiming their first lead in the period at 6-5. That is when UCI began to turn up the pressure, going on a 3-0 run off a Wolfe kill.
Carrying on with their aggressive attack, the defining moment came in a stretch where the ‘Eaters went on a killing spree, sending four consecutive across capped off by a DeSales deflection to hand the ‘Eaters a 21-15 cushion.
With a tip in kill from redshirt junior setter Ali Koumelis bringing the game to match-point, Montgomery would bookend the game and represent the seniors well with a final strike to close it, 25-18.
Blue and yellow balloons swayed by the ‘Eaters bench throughout the night, as the program honored three of its departing seniors, Luna Tsujimoto, Brianna Montgomery and Chloe Hakim at the end of the match.
Tsujimoto finished off the year with the third highest dig average at 4.12 and has recorded double figures in the respective category in all but four matches. Against Hawai’i last Friday, she was four digs short of matching her career-high at 23 with 19.
A transfer from Hofstra, Montgomery averaged 1.67 kills and 1.42 digs on the year. She registered a season-high 10 kills twice, both of which came against CSUN.
Hakim saw action in 16 matches and had a season-high seven digs against Montana State. Hakim was at her best against Santa Barbara two years ago when she came up with 17 digs and got in double-figures in the respective category in nine matches of that year.
“That [senior] group has really set a high standard in our program for just work ethic and commitment,” coach Hain said. “They’ve laid a foundation for us to grow from and get better and better.”
“Those three are definitely leaders…I’ve always looked up to them,” Wolfe said. “[During] last year, my first year, they’ve been nothing but positive on the court and even off the court. If I have anything I know I can go up to them and they’re always going to lead me toward the right direction and I really feel like they are a huge part of the team and I’m going to miss them a lot.”
With the regular season coming to an official end, UCI will await a chance to compete in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship, which will officially be announced during a selection show Sunday.