On the same day in which March Madness officially commenced, when there was surely a sense of heightened anticipation with the possibility of major upsets looming for college hoops, it was business as usual for fifth-ranked UC Irvine men’s volleyball (15-5, 2-1) who made it a short night by taking down UC San Diego (9-11, 0-3) in three sets (25-21, 31-29, 25-18).
Senior outside hitter Aaron Koubi led the ‘Eaters with 12 kills on .455 hitting. Koubi also logged four digs and got a hand on a rejection.
“We just took care of business,” Koubi said of Thursday night’s win. “We stayed engaged and we didn’t do what we did against [Fort Wayne] when we were [playing] at their level. [Tonight] we were steady and we won in three so that’s big for us.”
Junior Karl Apfelbach and freshman Joel Schneidmiller added 11 kills a piece, hitting .304 and .474 respectively. Sophomore Scott Stadick, who leads the conference with 1.37 blocks per set, turned away a match-high four Triton attempts as the ‘Eaters collectively added eight rejections to their conference leading 196 total blocks.
“We’ve had big guys and good blockers,” Stadick said. “Thomas Hodges last year was a phenomenal blocker. You can tell because no one would set at him. Early on in the year, we were really focusing in on offense and now we’ve had the chance to focus in a little more on blocking and defense so hopefully it’s only up from here.”
Searching for their first win in Big West play, San Diego had their hands full against a UCI squad that had been rolling on a three-game win streak after an uncharacteristic upset loss to Fort Wayne last Wednesday. It did not help that San Diego had a major hurdle to overcome on their own team as they were without the services of Senior Tanner Syftestad, the nation and Big West leader in kills per set at 4.76 on 10.37 attempts. Syftestad is averaging an impressive 5.58 points per set.
“Tanner is one of the best if not the best opposite in the nation…so that’s obviously a blow for them,” Stadick said of Syftestad’s absence. “But they had some good guys coming off the bench [and] they came out swinging and we try to play everybody, every team, every match, every player the same. We just try to play our game and find their weaknesses and try to exploit it.”
UCI earned a 6-4 advantage in the first set, going for four unanswered on a San Diego net violation, Apfelbach kill, and consecutive double blocks by Schneidmiller and redshirt freshman outside hitter Austin Wilmot.
Koubi would later heat up, scoring three consecutive to extend the lead, 14-8, while forcing the Tritons to call a time-out. While San Diego did recalibrate their attack and raced back to a one-point deficit, the ‘Eaters kept the lead the rest of the way as Stadick ended it, 25-21, firing one that bounced hard off a Triton defender frozen on an island along the right flank.
The Tritons hung around in the second set and made it a rather close one. San Diego waded off a five-point ‘Eater run that had handed the home team a 8-4 advantage—the largest lead of either team on the set—to eventually knot it up at 21 apiece. A UCI attacking error handed the Tritons the lead and set point but a subsequent service error tied up the set once more.
“As a team we try not to get caught up in any momentum [shifts],” Koubi said. “It’s good when it’s going good but when you have that kind of momentum…when it’s bad it goes twice as bad so we always try to keep the winning streak as though nothing happened. We always try to keep each other accountable…[and] not be caught up in the momentum.”
With neither team managing to string together two consecutively successful possessions, the match would go on to be tied up eight more timed with eight set points and lead changes. However, on the eighth set point, one earned by a tip from sophomore middle blocker Matthew Younggren, a subsequent attacking error ended the period, 31-29.
“The idea is to be point-to-point and not even care about the score,” Stadick said of the team’s ability to fend of San Diego late in the second set. “[We] just try to focus on what it takes to get that next point.”
The third set was also a competitive one, but once the ‘Eaters found their groove, scoring five unanswered in a stretch that was capped by an Apfelbach service ace to make it a 21-16 UCI edge, San Diego would not have enough of a offensive pop nor the defensive prowess to keep up.
With a Koubi kill and back-to-back monstrous strikes from Schneidmiller bringing the game to match-point, a kill from the ‘Eaters veteran senior set up man Dante Chakravorti off a feed from junior JB Kam sealed it, 25-18.
UCI will attempt to sweep their conference matchup against San Diego when they travel to RIMAC Arena tomorrow night for another 7:00pm start.