They don't fly Mountain Pacific Sports Federation banners in the Bren Events Center, which perhaps places some perspective on the UC Irvine men's volleyball team's 25-21, 21-25, 25-21, 19-25, 15-13 MPSF loss to visiting Stanford on Friday night.
The two-time defending NCAA champion Anteaters, however, showed they are perhaps ready for another strong postseason run by hanging to the end with what UCI Coach David Kniffin said is likely the hottest team in the country.
The No. 4-ranked Cardinal (19-7, 16-7 in conference) have now won 10 straight matches on their way to securing a top-four seed in the MPSF Tournament that begins with quarterfinals on Friday.
The Anteaters, on the other hand, blew a chance to finish in the top four, as UC Santa Barbara upset No. 1-ranked BYU at home Friday to move two matches ahead with just one to play. That means that if UCI can take care of last-place Pacific at home on Saturday, it would visit UCSB on Friday to begin a long road trek toward what would need to be an MPSF Tournament victory to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think Stanford is probably the most complete team in the MPSF, in terms of position-by-position," Kniffin said of the visitors, who rallied from a 14-7 deficit to win the first set and never trailed in the decisive fifth set.
UCI (17-10, 14-9), rallied from an 11-5 deficit to take the second set, and led, 9-6, in the third, before the visitors once again came back.
After UCI claimed the fourth set, the fifth was tied at 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 12 and 13. But a Steve Irvin kill and a blocked tip attempt off the fingers of UCI senior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno set off an explosive celebration by Stanford players and fans.
Dejno led the hosts with 17 kills, while senior outside hitter Connor Hughes added 14 kills, 10 digs and two block assists.
Senior middle blocker Scott Kevorken had 10 kills, three block assists and two solo blocks for the 'Eaters, who hit .269 as a team, 13 points better than the Cardinal.
UCI had 21 service errors and five aces, while the visitors missed 20 serves and banged five aces. Stanford posted a 10.5-7 edge in total blocks, but UCI had 50 of the matches 95 digs.
"I think in games we won, we applied consistent pressure, which Stanford hasn't had to deal with," Kniffin said. "The games we lost, we missed a lot of serves. When they are not forced to sideout every time, they get pretty good."
Dejno had six missed serves and junior opposite Zach La Cavera had four. La Cavera, who came off the bench to spark the Anteaters in the second set, had seven kills, but hit .048. Freshman opposite Tamir Hershko hit negative .091 with three kills and four errors on 11 swings.
"Overall, the production from our opposites wasn't good," Kniffin said. "We're stretching the best team in the country right now to five games with our opposites hitting below 100. That tells me that A) We're a pretty good volleyball team too; and B) If we want to start winning these big matches against teams we'll have to play in the playoffs, well have to get better production from those guys."
Kniffin praised senior super sub Travis Woloson, who served a string of points in the Game 2 win and had one ace without a single error, the only one of five Anteaters to record an ace not to miss a single serve.
Senior setter Daniel Stork had 49 assists and junior libero Michael Brinkley posted a team-best 11 digs for UCI, for which senior middle blocker had six kills in eight swings, without an error (.750) and added one block assist.
"I know we are in the playoffs and that's really all that we care about," Kniffin said. "We'll be just fine. We're battle-tested."
Brian Cook had 18 kills, while Irvin added 15 for the winners, for whom starting junior middle blocker Spencer Haly, a Corona del Mar High product, chipped in three block assists.