For the first time since 2015, No. 5 UC Irvine men’s volleyball is headed back to the NCAA tournament where they will face defending national champions Ohio State in the opening round Tuesday at 2 p.m. at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
Ohio State emerged victorious in the MIVA Tournament for a third consecutive year and cashed in their ticket to face the ‘Eaters after defeating King University, who won their respective Conference Carolinas Tournament and matched the Buckeyes with a 23-5 overall record on the year, in a play-in match last Thursday.
The ‘Eaters are 7-4 overall against the Buckeyes and in their meeting last season, UCI defeated then No. 1 ranked Ohio State on the road, snapping a 42-game win streak in the process.
“We’re definitely confident in trying to beat them because we already did last year,” junior outside hitter Aaron Koubi said.
If history is any indicator, the ‘Eaters possess an advantage. The only time the two met in the national tournament nine years ago, UCI swept Ohio State in the semifinals and went on to hoist the national title — their second in two years at the time. UCI has also fared quite well in NCAA tournament play, dropping only two games in 10 matches for an 8-2 overall record.
In terms of any key points to look out for, many on the team believe that they must learn to stave the course even when down early or through the entirety of the match.
“It will be about how well we do when we are down two points, down three points … when it feels like we can’t score any points,” sophomore middle blocker Scott Stadick said. “I think it’ll just be [about] grinding it out in those moments.”
Granted the ‘Eaters defeat the Buckeyes, they will advance to play No. 1 Long Beach, who receives a bye into the semifinals having lost just a single game on the year. On the opposite end of the bracket, UCLA will host Harvard in round one. The winner advances to play No. 2 BYU Cougars.
UCI’s appearance in the national postseason tournament this year marks their seventh in program history (2006, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015). Of their six prior journeys for the chip, the ‘Eaters brought it back to Irvine four times (2007, 2009, 2012, 2013), the last of which was earned after a dominant sweep over BYU in Westwood. The 2013 championship is also the last time that a west coast squad took the gold home.
The last two weeks of Big West play did not go favorably for the ‘Eaters. While they had dropped a crucial one against Santa Barbara, Hawaii — who was going toe-to-toe with the ‘Eaters for a second place sitting in standings — took the nation’s best in undefeated No. 1 Long Beach to five sets and went on to spoil the 49ers perfect season in their regular conference finale. In the postseason, the ‘Eaters advanced after dropping UC San Diego in a sweep but the Rainbow Warriors eliminated the ‘Eaters in the semifinals.
UCI, awaiting the hopes for an at-large bid, would in an unforeseen display of events, captured one of two bids — the other going to UCLA — to the NCAA title, the first round of which will be played this Tuesday in Westwood. The ‘Eaters are ready to move on and learn from their shortcomings and postseason exit.
“We’re just very grateful for this opportunity that we’ve been granted and with this opportunity, I know that we can pursue our best efforts and really go for it.,” junior opposite Karl Apfelbach said. “After that [semifinal] loss, we might have been a little down on ourselves but now we’ve been revitalized … and [that loss] is going to help fuel our play into the next matches.”
With a relatively young group this season, UCI’s body of work was enough to snag a bid over Hawai’i. The ‘Eaters finished the year 21-9 overall and tied Hawai’i 6-4 for second in the inaugural Big West standings.
Defeating top 15 ranked AVCA teams in 12 matches, the ‘Eaters rose to a No. 3 rank — the highest of the season — and stayed there for three weeks. Currently ranked fifth, the ‘Eaters have not dropped below that position in the last 12 weeks.
“There’s no guarantee with an at large,” Stadick said, “but we’re happy we got it and hoping to do everything we can now.”
The ‘Eaters look to capitalize not only on their second chance at a NCAA title run, but also for the sheer opportunity to compete on such a grand stage.
“Oh … it’s huge,” Koubi said of the chance to play in the national tournament. “None of us have competed in a national championship … so it’s a new experience for us. We’re really grateful and we’ll see how it goes.”