The No.5 UCI Men’s Volleyball (11-15, 3-7) team eliminated the UCSD Tritons (13-11, 5-5) in three sets (25-23, 25-20, 30-28) in the Big West Championship quarterfinal match at the Simplifi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center in Hawaii on Thursday, April 21.
The Irvine squad snapped the Tritons in half, rounding out an exhausting third set that went into overtime at 30-28 to secure the 3-0 match victory. The ‘Eaters displayed their abilities to play unfamiliar positions after several seasonal injuries left head coach David Kniffin with restricted lineup options. However, the Anteaters stepped up and secured a spot in the semifinal round of the Big West Championship.
The first set of the night was an exchange of points between both teams. San Diego broke away with sneaky shots and tools off the block. After UCSD’s redshirt junior outside hitter Ryan Ka tooled an Irvine block, Kniffin called a timeout at a Triton four point lead, 13-9.
The ‘Eaters returned with a new defensive dominance at the net led by junior middle blocker Aiden Wolf-Nielsen. Nielsen threw down a Triton tip, followed with back-to-back roof blocks to close the scoring gap and tie it up at 13-13.
San Diego procured a quick side out from another tool. But UCI’s freshman outside hitter Hilir Henno offered to show the UCSD hitters how to swing with a massive kill to tie it up, 15-15.
Irvine broke away after getting easy points from Triton service errors and a few incredible Anteater plays. Henno stepped in for senior setter Brian Garcia for the second ball, setting up sophomore outside hitter Francesco Sani out of middle back to secure the kill for Irvine.
UCSD attempted to apply more offensive pressure with a couple massive swings, tying up the score 21-21. Yet, the setter-hitter connection led by Garcia charged the Irvine squad as they rounded out the first set. Nielsen, who earlier went down from a rolled ankle, denied Triton access with an insane block to get the set point for UCI, 24-22. Henno followed up with a classic tool off the San Diego block to secure the set, 25-23.
The second set was a battle between pin-hitters as attackers dished out forceful swings, challenging their opponents’ digging abilities. Triton senior outside hitter Wyatt Harrison went line past Henno’s solo block which was immediately returned with a Sani special swing down the line to tie it up 4-4.
Both teams refused to hold back this set. Triton senior libero Matt Palma tumbled over the sideline boundaries to save a shanked pass for his team to which Henno intellectually smashed angle to the empty corner as Palma struggled to get back onto the court.
Irvine broke away from offensive pressure led by the unstoppable Sani-Garcia duo. Sani terminated a ball from the right side followed by a sneaky beach-style cut shot from the left side, confusing the Triton defense and affirming the Irvine lead, 11-7.
After a roof block by redshirt sophomore outside hitter Doug Dahm—playing middle blocker this match—confidence emanated from the ‘Eater side. The Tritons were determined to claw their way back into the set, but after a net violation on freshman setter Gabriel Dyer, the Irvine lead grew, 21-15.
Garcia continued to trip up the San Diego defensive with deceiving set placement. Yet, Irvine’s refusal to hold back behind the service line cost them 13 missed serves so far. Despite the Triton’s efforts, the second set went to Irvine after back-to-back kills by Sani 25-20.
Heading into the third set, the Tritons went back to tooling the Irvine block. Ka went high for hands to secure an easy point for the Tritons 4-2. UCSD’s senior middle blocker Logan Clark then bounced the ball not once, but twice on no block to confirm the Triton early lead, 8-5.
The ‘Eaters had enough. Sani shut down UCSD senior outside hitter Kyle McCauley, dropping his shoulder at the last second to take angle. Irvine closed the gap until an influx of strange calls from the up-ref who blew his whistle on Doug for a double contact on a joust ball.
The referee gave UCSD the same treatment, calling a down ball on Harrison despite his pancake save. San Diego head coach Kevin Ring challenged the call to no avail and the point went to Irvine, 12-15.
A beautiful cross-court set by Garcia found Gillis on the left side who tooled the Triton block. An ace by redshirt freshman outside hitter Connor Dahm and a cunning tip by Sani cut the gap one point at a time, 15-16.
Both sides exchanged several service errors, hindering scoring runs. Long rallies display the team’s desperation and refusal to let up. Henno got a massive kill through UCSD’s block, only to be followed by a Triton attack by Harrison who procured seven kills thus far with no errors. The Tritons were up 20-18.
Connor came in the front row to get an incredible block on an attempted roll shot by Ka, as Irvine’s starting middle Nielsen rested his rolled ankle on the bench.
The set was tied up, 20-20, after another hitting error by Ka. Momentum returned for the Irvine squad as Henno took second ball again over Garcia, setting up Connor who secured a kill from the middle.
McCauley led a brief Triton charge, terminating a ball from behind the line with a laser BIC kill. McCauley rotated to the front row to dish out more massive swings, one of which was picked up by UCI’s junior libero Cole Power with an astonishing dig. Both teams rallied back and forth as they fought for each point with a tied up score.
Connor secured an ace for the ‘Eaters to give his team a one point lead 24-23, followed by a UCSD timeout call by Ring. Each side returned with powerful swings from the pins. Irvine’s offensive dominance — headed by Sani — was hindered by their 20 match total service errors, ultimately preventing Irvine from closing out the set.
Kniffin sent in redshirt senior opposite Alexandre Nsakanda who manipulated the Triton block with a tip-tool to get the ‘Eaters a slight lead 28-27.
Neither side was willing to give in. Clark pounded a three-set from the middle to tie it back up at 28-28. Sani returned the favor with a kill from the back row and Henno concluded the match with a debilitating roof on McCauley for the last time, giving Irvine the 30-28 victory and 3-0 win.
The players of the match included Sani for the ‘Eaters and McCauley for the Triton squad. Sani outperformed with 19 kills, hitting a jaw-dropping 0.581 with only one hitting error for the entirety of the match. On the other side of the court, McCauley obtained 13 kills, hitting 0.226.
Kniffin spoke about the astonishing victory his team pulled off for the night, running with an unfamiliar roster with players such as Connor Dahm who stepped up for the Irvine squad to fill the necessary spots.
“The one thing we have never been short of on this team is belief,” Kniffin said.
Gina Johnson is a 2021-2022 Sports Co-Editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.