LONG BEACH – The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team said goodbye to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation on Thursday, falling to No. 1-ranked Long Beach State, 25-19, 25-22, 25-19, in an MPSF Tournament semifinal in front of 2,489 at Walter Pyramid.
And, barring something remarkable, the Anteaters said goodbye to their season.
No. 5-ranked and No. 4-seeded UCI (20-7) came in with the nation’s longest winning streak at nine straight matches, and had won 11 of its previous 12.
But after No. 3-seeded Hawaii upset No. 2-seeded BYU, which shared the regular-season crown with Long Beach State, in the other MPSF semifinal, UCI would figure to got to the back of the line for NCAA at-large berths behind Long Beach, Hawaii and BYU.
“We’ve put together a strong body of work this year, and we do hold hope that that continues,” UCI Coach David Kniffin said after his team hit .122, some 172 points worse than the 49ers (26-3). “We’ve done some amazing things this year. Long Beach was just a little better than us tonight.”
The 49ers, who will join UCI in the Big West Conference next season, improved to 15-0 at home this season as they aim for the program’s first MPSF tournament victory.
The hosts won the blocking battle with 10 team blocks, to UCI’s three, and also had four aces, one better than the ’Eaters.
UCI had 16 service errors, one more than the 49ers.
UCI senior outside hitter Tamir Hershko had a team-best nine kills and hit .240, while MPSF Freshman of the Year Scott Stadick, a 7-foot middle blocker, had five kills, hit .375 and had two solo blocks. His two solo stuffs give him 25 for the season, a school single-season record.
UCI senior setter Michael Saeta, who joined Hersko as a first-team All-MPSF selection, had 27 assists, three kills, five digs and one ace. His ace upped his school single-season record to 63.
Senior opposite Thomas Hodges had seven kills, but hit .000, while sophomore Aaron Koubi, who had been important during UCI’s late-season surge, had four kills with seven errors in 18 swings for a negative -.167 percentage.
“Koubi has been playing All-American volleyball for the 12 or 13 matches he has been in [since returning from a shoulder injury],” Kniffin said. “Every guy has an off night. I have to figure out how to prepare him better.”
Long Beach State Coach Alan Knipe, who played at Marina High and Orange Coast College, said focusing on Koubi was part of his plan.
“[Koubi] has been great for a couple weeks, so it was definitely an emphasis to keep track of where he was and what his tendencies are,” Knipe said. “He hit a couple balls out by a couple inches. It wasn’t like we blocked him every time.”
Koubi shared the team lead with junior libero Dillon Hoffman with six, while Hershko and Saeta added five apiece.
Kyle Ensing, a 6-7 sophomore opposite, had 10 kills to match MPSF Player of the Year TJ DeFalco, a Huntington Beach High product, for the winners. Ensing hit .529 and also produced a team-best eight digs.
DeFalco hit .240 and was one of four 49ers with aces, while fellow Huntington Beach alum Josh Tuaniga, a sophomore setter, had 29 assists and one ace.
Amir Lugo-Ramirez, who led the nation in blocking coming in, had seven block assists and one solo stuff to help limit the UCI attack.
UCI trailed the entire first set, but led in the final two. The ’Eaters never led by more than two. Their last lead in the second set was 16-15, while their final edge in the third game was 9-8.
UCI had a chance to take a lead at 21-21 in the second set, but Koubi’s tip was thwarted by a triple block and Long Beach went on to prevail.
UCI lost all three matches against Long Beach this season and is now 0-3 in MPSF Tournament play against the 49ers, who have 20 sweeps this season, a school record.
Long Beach plays host to Hawaii (26-4), which is also in search of its first MPSF Tournament crown, in Saturday’s final at 7 p.m.