IRVINE — UC Irvine's run to the 2012 NCAA men's volleyball championship was a tribute to shape shifting. With seemingly interchangeable parts, the Anteaters drew upon their bench at a moment's notice, no matter the stakes.
While that trend continues this season, in which a congested January schedule has created opportunities through injuries and lulls in performance, it appears that the most valuable addition to the No. 3-ranked Anteaters' lineup just might be adrenaline.
With a majority of the 1,701 in attendance at the Bren Events Center on Friday fueling the hosts' competitive juices, the result was a pressure-packed 23-25, 25-19, 20-25, 25-16, 15-13 victory over Long Beach State in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match that was anyone's for the taking.
Senior returning All-American Kevin Tillie said his play was admittedly elevated by emotion as he amassed a match-best 21 kills and produced a .450 hitting percentage. Tillie smacked the match-winning kill to induce both cheers of joy and sighs or relief from the home faithful.
Five other UCI players had one kill each in the deciding set, in which UCI (6-3, 3-3 in conference) hit a combined .059.
But the No. 7-ranked 49ers (5-3, 3-2), who scrapped and clawed to force a fifth game despite an incredible 62-41 kill deficit through four games, seemed to wilt as the spotlight intensified. The visitors made five service errors, two hitting errors and allowed another ball to fall on their side of the net as defenders flinched in unison to give UCI an 8-4 advantage.
It was UCI that made the most mistakes in the opening game, as eight service errors helped the visitors prevail.
A potential turning point occurred early in Game 3, when UCI junior starting setter Daniel Stork went down with what Anteaters Coach David Kniffin later said was a hip injury. Senior Chris Austin, who took over for Stork last season to lead the national title push, stepped in, and the Anteaters immediately struggled, dropping six of the next seven points. UCI never got closer than four as Long Beach took a 2-1 lead in sets.
"We have two setters with very different styles," said Kniffin, whose team has won two straight after dropping three in a row previously. "Daniel lofts the ball up there and puts a lot of air underneath his sets. Chris runs a little faster tempo, with a little more flash. I liken it to switching pitchers in the middle of an inning on an [opposing] batter."
Said Tillie: "With our two different setters, it's a little tough to adjust cold in the middle of a match. But Chris really stepped up in the fourth set and we crushed them. We really got going with a rhythm."
Austin, who opened the season as the starter, finished with 25 assists, while Stork had 31. Both setters had one block assist and Austin had one kill, a crucial dump that gave UCI a 12-10 fifth-set lead.
"I'm confident that both setters can set us to a national championship," Kniffin said.
Sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera, who had missed the two previous matches with a back problem, came off the bench to record 14 kills. La Cavera also had three of his team's seven aces, which helped counter balance 19 service errors, four more than the 49ers' total. Long Beach State, however, had just two aces.
Junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno, who gave way to junior Connor Hughes in the final two games, had 13 kills, while Hughes collected five.
Junior middle blocker Colin Mehrig had eight kills, hit .636, and paced UCI's modest blocking effort (Long Beach's nine team blocks were five more than UCI's) with one solo stuff and two block assists.
Sophomore Travis Woloson also made a huge play dropping a float-serve ace just over the net to put UCI up, 14-12, in the fifth set. Woloson then stepped to the center of the court, faced the UCI student section and pumped his fist while verbally exhorting his team and its fans to add to the emotional caldron.
Tillie said the fifth set featured the most adrenaline he has encountered on the court this season.
"Everyone was standing and screaming and cheering for us," Tillie said. "It was amazing."
UCI will hope to continue its surge on Tuesday when it visits UCLA, coached by John Speraw, who guided the Anteaters to three national titles in 10 seasons at the helm, before taking over this season at his alma mater.
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times