IRVINE — For the second time in six days, UC Irvine, last season's top team, met UCLA, the current No. 1 team in men's volleyball.
Five days after losing in three sets at UCLA, the Anteaters played host to the Bruins. The Anteaters didn't go down so quickly in the rematch, but UCLA proved to be the better side again.
In a key Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match, UCLA defeated the No. 8 Anteaters, 25-19, 25-21, 20-25, 25-18, at Bren Events Center on Saturday night.
The Bruins continued to roll. Ever since UCLA dropped its season opener against Stanford, it has won nine in a row.
The hottest team in the nation appears to be the Bruins (9-1, 6-0 in conference), yet UCI Coach David Kniffin said they aren't the team to beat.
"They're the undefeated team right now," said Kniffin, referring to the Bruins' mark in conference play. "I don't know who the top team is. I think there's about six of them that are viable contenders, based on various factors, home-and-away matches, strength of schedule, matchups, things like that. It's hard to know where things will sort themselves out to in March or April."
At the beginning of February, the Anteaters are a .500 team. The two-time defending NCAA national champions aren't off to one of their better starts.
The season is still early for UCI (6-6. 3-5 in conference) to turn things around. Kniffin said January always seems to be rough on UCI, whenever it has gone on to make a run at a national title. Three of the four titles UCI has claimed came under Kniffin's former boss, John Speraw, and one under Kniffin.
Speraw is now in his second season in charge of UCLA, his alma mater. Whenever Speraw is in Irvine, he said he feels comfortable. He looked at ease when he saw the type of high energy the Bruins played with in the first two sets. They seemed on the verge of recording their sixth sweep of the season.
Gonzalo Quiroga helped UCLA get off to a good start. The hosts had no answer for the senior from Argentina, who was perfect on his first five shots in the opening set.
Quiroga's hitting percentage went down to .727 in the second set, but the outside hitter added four kills. He finished with 15 kills, 12 digs, four service aces, a solo block and four block assists.
"I was really happy with the way that we responded to most of the runs that Irvine put together," Speraw said. "They would get a lead, but we would come right back."
The Anteaters finally held off UCLA in the third set. Outside hitter Connor Hughes broke a 15-15 tie with one of his 13 kills, sparking a 4-0 run.
Zack La Cavera came alive in the third set for UCI, producing six kills and two aces. The junior opposite finished with 12 kills and six digs.
In the fourth set, UCLA jumped out to a 14-6 lead and never looked back. Libero Ian Sequeira, a former Newport Harbor High standout, collected a couple of his eight digs in the final set, ensuring UCLA swept the regular-season series against UCI.
"We're very much in the collecting information stage," said Kniffin, whose team travels to Pacific on Friday, and on the following day plays at No. 7 Stanford. "I think it's hard for competitors, especially competitors that are used to winning the last match of the year, and being a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed during the majority of the season. That's not our path this year, and our objective remains the same."