Men's Volleyball: 'Eaters bounce back

NORTHRIDGE — The UC Irvine men's volleyball team stopped the bleeding by handling host Cal State Northridge, 23-25, 25-19, 25-20, 25-13, in a Mountain Pacific Sport Federation match on Wednesday.

But in the midst of a surprising 5-3 start, including a 2-3 record in MPSF play, there remains some inflammation that may require more time to subside for the No. 3-ranked Anteaters.

"It has been a crazy January," UCI first-year coach David Kniffin said after senior outside hitter Kevin Tillie had 17 kills and hit .542 against the No. 9-ranked Matadors (3-2, 1-2), who had won three straight coming in.

With the advent of the newly formed Pac-12 Network televising its school's volleyball matches, it has shifted the volleyball contests to previously little-utilized Tuesdays and Wednesdays, rather than the traditional Thursdays through Saturdays. Adjusting to that trend this first year, created a scheduling anomaly that has UCI playing 12 matches in January, Kniffin said.

"Right now, we're using the matches to teach the game, because we have so many fewer practices than we typically have in January," Kniffin said.

Diminished time on the practice floor stunts development, especially for the less-experience players, prompting Kniffin to go with and stick with a lineup that creates the best chance to win.

"Right how, the guys we have on the court are our best lineup," Kniffin said.

Wednesday, that lineup was identical to the one that started in a road loss to No. 1-ranked BYU on Saturday. That alignment includes senior Connor Hughes starting at opposite, in place of injured sophomore Zack La Cavera (lower back) and junior Daniel Stork starting at setter for senior Chris Austin.

"I think Connor has been doing a great job at opposite," Kniffin said. "He has been huge mentally and emotionally, stepping up at that position."

Hughes had six of his 13 kills in the opening set, when Kniffin said his team was having trouble getting acclimated to the environment. Hughes hit .357 for the match, while adding one solo block and two block assists.

Tillie, an All-American on last year's NCAA title team, had one of the visitors' three aces, while junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno chipped in 12 kills and two aces. Tillie, who amassed nine kills in the clinching set, had a team-best eight digs, while Dejno added four.

Dejno served six straight points to create a 19-9 advantage in Game 4, as the Anteaters closed out the match in convincing fashion.

Stork, playing in the gym where his father, former Olympian Jeff Stork, coaches the Northridge women's team, had 42 assists and a .500 assist percentage. He also had five digs and two block assists.

UCI middle blockers Colin Mehring and Scott Kevorken had seven and six kills, respectively, and combined for one solo block and four block assists. Both played the entire match, as did sophomore libero Michael Brinkley (six digs).

It was the seventh straight UCI win over the Matadors and should help the Anteaters restore some confidence.

"Technically and tactically, we're a good team," Kniffin said. "But, as I've said, we're still a team very much in search of its own identity. I think we're still a little frantic in the 20- to 25-point range [in each game], but I think we've identified that and we're trying to work through it."

UCI was tied at 20 and 21 in the opening game, before the Matadors used two kills and a stuff block from senior middle blocker Drew Staker to capture the set and the early momentum.

Northridge's next lead was at 10-9 in Game 3, but it was also the Matadors' final lead.

UCI plays host to No. 7-ranked Long Beach State in the Bren Events Center on Friday at 7 p.m.

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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