Men’s Volleyball: ‘Eaters handle Hawaii

Coming to the end of what some might call the daunting dozen, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team appears to have plenty in reserve after posting a sweep in the 11th of its 12 January matches.

The No. 4-ranked Anteaters earned a 25-16, 25-22, 25-11 triumph over No. 6-ranked Hawaii in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match Wednesday at the Bren Events Center.

It was the third straight sweep and the seventh of the season for the Anteaters (9-2, 4-1 in conference), who also swept the Rainbow Warriors (5-2, 2-1) on their home floor in tournament play on Jan. 11. UCI, which has won nine of its last 10 matches, will complete its first-month frenzy with a rematch against Hawaii on Friday, also at the Bren Center.

“It’s a heck of a January to say the least,” UCI sophomore setter Michael Saeta said after amassing 37 assists and helping the ‘Eaters hit .341 as a team, 257 points better than the visitors. “It has been a little daunting on our bodies, but at the same time, it’s a challenge I think we all love.”

There was much to love for UCI Coach David Kniffin, who identified 16 service errors as about the only sticking point in a 90-minute match during which UCI trailed only briefly and never by more than three points.

Sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz hit 1.000 with six kills, and also added a team-best seven block assists.

Junior outside hitter Kyle Russell pounded a match-high 11 kills with a .318 hitting percentage, while leading the winners with two aces and chipping in four block assists and one solo stuff.

Senior opposite Zack La Cavera had 10 kills and shared the team lead with five digs, while junior middle blocker Jason Agopian hit .500 with five kills and sophomore outside hitter Tamir Hershko contributed eight kills.

Freshman libero Dillon Hoffman, filling in for senior All-American Michael Brinkley, whom Kniffin said was held out so he could evaluate Hoffman’s readiness, had five digs.

“Having played Hawaii already, we had a pretty intimate knowledge of this team,” Kniffin said. “We had a good idea of how they might attack us tonight and I thought we responded well.”

UCI’s knowledge helped limit the Rainbow Warriors to a woeful .084 hitting percentage, a feat all the more impressive since the visitors, in their first road match of the season, came in ranked second in the MPSF (behind UCI) in hitting efficiency.

Saeta said he was happy about his team’s continued ability to close out matches as efficiently as possible.

“One thing we’ve talked about this year is being composed as a team,” Saeta said. “We come in and we leave with the same mentality. We’re always focused and we’re always ready to push. So, when you do that game-in and game-out, we get these sweeps, because we are able to focus and have that same intensity every single time we walk on the court.”

Kniffin had special praise for his setter, as well as Benz.

“I think [Saeta, who came into the match fourth in the country in assists per set (11.1) and sixth with 0.6 aces per game] is doing everything I want him to do in January,” Kniffin said. “But my ceiling for him is much higher than he’s playing.

“And Benz [who entered with a team-best .600 hitting percentage] had a really nice night,” Kniffin said. “I think we’re starting to see him become the kind of player we hoped he could be.”

But Kniffin, whose team was beaten at home by USC on Friday, said he is anxious to see what progress his team can continue to make.

“I feel like we’ve been doing enough to win matches, but I don’t know if we’re running the offense we want to run at the end of the year,” said Kniffin, whose team will play 12 combined matches in February and March.