In a marvel of athletic showmanship, No. 5 ranked UC Irvine men’s volleyball swept the No. 12 ranked USC Trojans, 3-0 Saturday night at the Bren Events Center.
UCI senior outside hitter Aaron Koubi, who was playing through a sprained thumb, finished the game with 13 kills, while junior opposite Karl Apfelbach recorded 9 kills. Apfelbach has been reaching new highs of late, leading the program in kills in their first three matches heading into Saturday night’s match. The Shorewood, Wisconsin native registered a career-high 22 kills in a 3-1 victory over No.13 Loyola-Chicago.
“I took it to myself over the summer to really push for trying to be a leader on this team, Apfelbach said. “I just kept positive thoughts, worked on mindset, got support from all the guys and I just want to perform for them.”
Sophomore middle blocker Mathew Younggren posted 7 kills and OCC transfer outside hitter JB Kam recorded 6 kills in the victory.
After suffering a gut-wrenching loss to the no. 3 ranked UCLA Bruins earlier in the week, the Anteater’s flawless homecoming victory in the Bren Events center perfectly displayed the team’s ability to remain composed on the court.
With an offensive front set up by junior setter Dante Chakravorti’s game leading 39 assists, the Anteaters took an early lead which they never relinquished.
In the first set, every USC point was answered quickly by the Anteaters. Although the Trojan’s began to make a run late in the set, a kill and putback block by Aaron Koubi sealed the UCI victory in the set at 25-17.
Set two followed similarly. USC took the lead early, but the score remained neck-and-neck till UCI gained momentum with a four point run to take the lead 13-9. Following another UCI run later in the set, Trojans Connor Inlow arrested the Anteater’s momentum with a stellar block to stall the score at 22-19. But the break was short lived. As a kill by Apfelbach followed by Chakravorti block concluded the set at 25-19 Anteaters.
Down 2-0, the Trojans wouldn’t accept defeat easily. In the third set, USC maintained a stable lead. Every UCI point seemed to be met with two Trojan points as the Anteaters were forced to play from behind. Playing from behind, however, only prompted the Anteaters to step up in the third set. Down 16-20, the Anteaters went on a late 5-1 run to tie the score at 21. Following two trojan points, two clutch kills by senior opposite Koubi tied the score at 24. Match point. The Trojans took the lead, 24-25, but again Koubi dropped two clutch kills to seal a UCI victory at 26-25 in the final set.
The three set sweep of the Trojans is a promising sign for the Anteaters, who are currently ranked 5th in the nation, as they enter into the new Big West Division. Other ranked teams in the Big West are Long Beach (2nd), Hawaii (4th), and CSU Northridge (9th). But the Anteaters don’t seem threatened by the challenging new division.
“I don’t feel like much has changed yet,” responded head coach David Kniffin when asked about the Big West, “because we’re still playing all our big rivalries…which we love.”
Though the division has changed for the Anteaters, the difficulty of the schedule has not. At the net next week will be number 10 Pepperdine. One week from then, the Anteaters will play their sixth ranked rivals BYU at home in the Bren.
The key to the Anteaters’ success is the teams unity, according to coach Kniffin
“People who’ve watched us for years look at this team and say ‘there’s something special about them because they’re so united so early, so calm, they seem like they’re playing like a single unit.’” coach Kniffin said.
Coach Kniffin also stated that the UCI culture typically breeds this same type of unity, but to see it this early is something special.
“Our mission as a program is to cultivate champions and win championships,” continued coach Kniffin, “both are important, and the order is important.” The team is constantly asking themselves how champions would behave on the court so that they can play with a champion’s mindset.”