The UCI Men’s Club Volleyball team (9-11, 9-11) placed third in Division 1AA Gold bracket at the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) Volleyball Championships at the Phoenix Convention Center in Arizona from April 14 to April 16.
The ‘Eaters took home the third-place plaque in Division 1AA of nearly 50 teams after three straight days of grueling tournament play. Competing in nine total matches, the Irvine squad ended their 6-3 tournament run after falling to Northeastern University (19-2, 19-2) in the Gold semifinal championship round on Saturday, April 16.
Their first match of the tournament began Thursday, April 14 at 8 a.m. against Ohio University (2-5). The ‘Eater squad defeated Ohio 2-0 (25-18, 25-23). This warm-up match wasn’t much of a challenge for Irvine as Ohio didn’t pose an offensive threat. Aside from minor passing and hitting errors from the Anteater team, they closed out the match with scores a little too close than desired.
An hour later, the ‘Eaters took on the University of Nebraska (13-6, 13-6) and also put their opponents away in just two sets (25-23, 25-22). While Nebraska didn’t have much of an edge to them either, the Anteaters’ unforced errors led to an uncomfortably close match. Running for the first time with a full roster, the ‘Eaters began to settle into their new lineup.
The Irvine team was undefeated until facing off against North Carolina State University (5-6, 5-6). The ‘Eaters fell in the third set 1-2 (21-25, 25-17, 13-15). A lack of communication was prevalent throughout the entirety of the match. Irvine stayed fairly close to NC State for all three sets, even closing out an eight-point scoring gap in the first set with heavy hits by sophomore outside hitters Anton Vo and George Pan. The Anteaters’ multitude of unforced errors prevented them from taking the victory.
Hungry to prove their skills, the UCI club team was fired up for Friday’s games. To fight for their place to stay in the Gold bracket, the team faced off against Western Michigan University-A (8-6, 8-6) at 8 a.m. as part of a challenge match. The Irvine team bagged a 2-0 (25-16, 25-17) morning victory. They came together to convert passes into offensive points, taking an early lead by amping up pressure both at the net and behind the service line.
Vo felt that the driving force for many of the team’s successful sets in this tournament was a new found synchronized energy he had yet to see until this National tournament.
“Everything felt in sync,” Vo said. “The whole season everyone and everything felt out of sync, our chemistry was lacking and it finally came together during these three days in Arizona. The feeling of winning and losing as a team was at its all time high and the energy was always there during the important moments.”
The ‘Eaters then faced off against the University of South Carolina (2-4, 2-4). The opening set of this matchup was marked by several dropped balls off the block. With impressive push sets and setter-hitter communication led by senior setter Michael Casim, the Irvine team generated powerful swings to earn points. Yet, the ‘Eaters unfortunately couldn’t get past the Carolina defense in time to pull the win in the following sets and ultimately fell 1-2 (25-17, 19-25, 9-15).
The Irvine squad then faced Penn University (3-4, 3-4) for their next match which quickly proved to be a very solid blocking team, preventing UCI from obtaining any scoring runs. As a result, the match stayed very close for its duration. Irvine made many unforced errors allowing Penn to get the first set win at 21-25. In the second set UCI swung hard straight out of the gates optimizing runs by tooling the Penn block. Supported by constant dime passes by senior libero Kevin Kujiraoka, the ‘Eaters took the set at 25-16.
With heavy service pressure generated by Vo’s topspin serves behind the line backed by epic swings at the net, Irvine outperformed their opponents on the offensive end in the tie-breaking third set.
Freshman middle blocker Allen Anca remarked on the service pressure that gave the ‘Eaters the edge they needed to take the third set from Penn after the extremely close match-up.
“[Vo] has such a powerful serve and there are so many instances where it just gave us such an edge over the other team,” Anca said. “It gave us just enough pressure to continue and comeback in the third set.”
The final point went to the ‘Eaters after an insane kill down the line from junior opposite Evan Marks to terminate the set at 15-13.
The Irvine squad sought to ride the momentum into their final day of tournament play and continue to execute their opponents with heavy offensive pressure in these extremely competitive conditions that they had yet to experience until this moment in the season.
Marks, who was later awarded first team all tournament along with Vo, commented on the overall experience of playing in such a highly competitive environment for the first time with a full roster.
“This was the first tournament where we had a full lineup,” Marks said. “All our other tournaments we had people missing and had to do weird lineups… Getting it all together in time for the biggest tournament felt amazing. Our offense and defense was so much better and reliable than it was in the past. Everyone knew what was at stake and brought their A game every set.”
The oncoming matches on Saturday tested the ‘Eaters abilities to do just this: bring their A-game and fight through their fatigue with back-to-back matches. First, the Anteaters took on the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill A (4-5, 4-5).
The first set against North Carolina was extremely close as both teams handed each other points from service and passing errors. Additionally, both teams seemed evenly matched on offensive IQ, displaying their ability to find holes in their opponent’s defense. The Irvine team took the 2-0 victory (26-24, 25-19).
Following, the ‘Eaters took on North Carolina State University (5-6, 5-6) once more in the quarter finals hoping to redeem themselves from their prior loss against NC State. This redemption match was tied up for its majority. Still, the ‘Eaters had the defensive advantage at the net, putting up a strong block that hindered their opponents ability to get much offensive traction. With several stops by Marks, paired with powerfully well-placed attacks by Pan, the Irvine squad secured a 2-0 (25-19, 25-23) win and a spot in the semifinals.
The semifinal round against Northeastern University (19-2, 19-2) proved to be the most nerve-racking match thus far. Anca commented on the team’s overall emotions while facing off against Northeastern.
“The overall feeling was a lot of nerves and excitement,” Anca said. “I personally think that game was the most energized I’ve ever been playing volleyball and it was great watching our team match that fire. It was an amazing fight back and forth…”
Aside from the ‘Eater nerves, the team was also hyped up, buzzing with both energy and intensity. The Irvine squad came into the match with a set drive to win and did just that in the first set 25-20.
The second set quickly veered off-course for the ‘Eaters as Northeastern procured a costly service run shutting down the remaining ‘Eater energy. After an influx of Irvine passing and hitting errors, the second set went to Northeastern 25-22.
Still hungry to compete, the Irvine team hoped to turn the tides in this tie-breaker match. Unfortunately, their opponents went on yet another service run fatiguing the Irvine side and preventing the team from gaining crucial offensive runs. Nevertheless, the ‘Eaters slowly closed the scoring gap, one fighting point at a time. Yet, it was simply too little too late. The final set went to Northeastern 11-15 after an unexpected sharp angle kill by the Northeastern right side hitter.
The ‘Eaters made their way off the court for the final time of the competitive season, heads hanging low in defeat. Yet, after a post-match team talk, the Irvine squad put their chins up in acknowledgment of their third place victory.
Marks paid homage to his team’s successes this tournament, commenting on the overall team experience at Nationals despite this tough loss.
“This tournament was an amazing experience,” Marks said. “The team peaked at the right time and went on a crazy run. The bitterness of defeat isn’t lost on us from the success we had. It’ll keep us fired up as we get ready for next year.”
The Men’s Club Volleyball team set their sights to the next competitive season, already preparing for the upcoming chance at securing their championship title for the 2023 NCVF Volleyball Championships.
Gina Johnson is a 2021-2022 Sports Co-Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.