The UCI Men’s Volleyball team (11-16, 3-7) fell to Long Beach State (20-5, 8-2), 1-3 (25-22, 23-25, 19-25, 27-29), in the Big West Volleyball Championship Semifinals at the SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center in Hawaii on Friday, April 22.
This defeat concluded the Anteaters’ conference season and was the final collegiate match for many of its graduating seniors. Still, the Irvine squad proved to be a worthy competitor for the Beach, taking the first set in dominating fashion and going into overtime in the fourth.
The first set started with a LBSU kill by freshman outside hitter Alex Nikolov, who reached his career-high record of 28 kills this match. Irvine was quick to get it back with a thunderous D ball kill from sophomore outside hitter Francesco Sani with the assist by senior setter Brian Garcia who went running into the padding for the set. Garcia proved to be a deciding factor in the night’s match, confusing the LBSU defense with cunning set placement and great setter-hitter chemistry.
His connection with redshirt sophomore middle blocker Doug Dahm quickly attested to be a deadly weapon. Both Dahm and junior middle block Aiden Wolf-Nielsen utilized well-timed sets to put away crucial points, ramming balls into the Terraflex flooring with both power and precision. Irvine began to accumulate a small lead led by the ‘Eater middles and an influx of unforced errors by the Beach. Wolf-Nielsen threw down a tip into the center of the Long Beach court to confirm the Irvine lead, 6-2.
Although Long Beach scraped together a few points, Irvine intellectually switched up their offensense. Sani dished out a clever roll shot kill that made its way gracefully over the Long Beach triple block. LBSU dished out some massive swings at the net; however, their service errors prevented them from obtaining the necessary points to get ahead.
Dahm secured a block against Nikolov to get the ‘Eaters up 12-7. Following, Garcia stuffed redshirt junior outside hitter Spencer Olivier showing the at-net aggression of the Anteater squad. Olivier soon figured out the Irvine triple block and concluded the Irvine five point scoring run with an off-block tool.
Garcia continued to run the middle — something the Beach was not expecting — especially with the huge Sani and freshman outside hitter Hilir Henno pin-hitter duo as the obvious setting options. Nielsen dished out a nastly three-set kill on no block, 15-10.
Long Beach’s sophomore outside hitter Clarke Godbold had a few tools off the Henno block and was backed by insane BIC kills from Olivier. Still, Irvine came out on top after a few laser-beam swings by Sani from the back row. After a missed serve by the Beach the first set went to the ‘Eaters 25-22.
The second set of the night started off with a Sani kill off the Long Beach block. Gillis punched down an LBSU overpass followed by another Sani D kill, terminating the ball once again. After a missed serve by Dahm, the score was tied 3-3.
This second set proved to be a power show down between Godbold and Sani who consistently exchanged explosive kills. The Beach broke away but Garcia put a stop to the Long Beach scoring run with a debilitating solo block, shutting down the middle who tried to swing on an Irvine overpass.
The Anteater energy returned after a bounce kill by Henno and the first attack error by Godbold tied up the score at 11-11. Henno dished out his 42nd and 43rd ace of the season on a slowed jump top, paired by a subsequent powerful ace falling in the back corner of the Long Beach court, players stunned.
Irvine was now in the lead 15-14. However, an influx of service and attack errors allowed the Beach to catch up. Going back to service once more, Henno achieved his 44th ace of the season, putting him into Irvine’s top 10 list for single-season aces and putting pressure on LBSU as Irvine was down one, 22-23.
Despite the hitting variety displayed by Sani, which continued to trip up the Long Beach defense, Nikolov’s hard angle swings led LBSU’s offensive superiority. After another massive angle kill by Nikolov, the set went to Long Beach 25-23, both teams tied at one set a piece.
The third set displayed Irvine’s ability to outsmart the LBSU defense. With great setting placement and aggressive dumps by Garcia, Long Beach was playing on their heels. The ‘Eater hitters found gaps in the Long Beach block, swinging through or simply tipping over their blockers’ hands. Henno secured a well-placed tip to get the early Irvine lead, 4-2. Dahm then shut down Olivier with a stuff block.
However, the ‘Eaters couldn’t shut down Godbold who swiftly figured out the Irvine defense and accumulated points on massive swings. Godbold tied it up for the Beach, 7-7. Irvine resorted to tricky beach shots to stay in it.
The final half of the match came down to who wanted it more. Irvine made a few attack errors, opening up an opportunity for LBSU. A crazy running save into the court seats by sophomore outside hitter Nathan Harlan ended in glorious fashion after Nikolov put it away off the Irvine block. He led the beach on a seven point scoring run and kept Irvine from getting back into the race. Sani desperately tooled the LBSU block, but after a missed serve he handed the third set to LBSU, 25-19.
Long Beach was up by one set going into the fourth. Irvine knew that they would have to fight to the end if they wanted to stay in it. Nikolov and Sani went head to head early on, returning each other’s kills with each being more powerful than the last.
The Anteater’s passing simply wasn’t present, allowing LBSU to break away with untouched kills. Garcia threw down a monstrous dump decreasing the deficit, 3-6. Irvine accumulated a few more points on kills out of the middle and a couple blocks on the Long Beach pins. Henno secured another ace to get back some much needed vitality for the ‘Eaters.
Sani followed up with a cross-court kill that kissed the line. Again, he dished out an insane kill from the back row. Garcia secured a point on another evil dump after a diving save by LBSU sophomore libero Mason Briggs went over to the Irvine side. Garcia denied access, closing the gap 13-14.
The set was suddenly tied up 16-16 after a Henno kill past Godbold’s solo block. A miracle dig by junior libero Cole Power gave Irvine the one point lead after a huge swing by LBSU junior middle blocker Shane Holdaway ricocheted off Power’s shoulder and onto the Long Beach side for the point.
Irvine regained their momentum and went on a mini scoring run led by Nielsen with two back-to-back kills from the middle. Garcia then utterly roofed Harlan, maintaining the Irvine lead 22-21. Henno then swiped angle away from the Godbold block to secure another point. The following points were exchanged aces and missed serves by both teams. An extremely ill-timed missed serve by Henno gave Long Beach the one point advantage 26-25.
The final points of the night were showdowns between Sani and Nikolov as they both delivered unreturnable swings. Both teams refused to give up the set though. After Nikolov sent a tip out of bounds, Irvine had an opportunity. Dahm swung into the net, sending the ball short into the tape and the victory went to LBSU 27-29.
This match displayed Irvine’s relentless abilities to fight for each point and dig deep to create momentum for themselves. On the Long Beach side, Alex Nikolov secured his career-high record for 28 kills in one match, hitting a jaw-dropping .558. For Irvine, Sani reached 21 kills this match hitting .304, Henno secured 14 kills and four aces while Dahm achieved a season-high nine kills hitting .500. Moreover, Irvine out-blocked the beach 4 to 1, Dahm with four total blocks and Garcia with five blocks. Additionally, Garcia closed out his collegiate volleyball career with 42 set assists, seven digs and three kills.
Gina Johnson is a 2021-2022 Sports Co-Editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.