Men's Volleyball: 'Eaters piece it together

IRVINE — The quickest way to solve the puzzle is to find the missing piece.

The UC Irvine men's volleyball team found enough personnel pieces to complete a 20-25, 25-19, 25-21, 25-22 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation victory over visiting UC Santa Barbara on Thursday.

The victory extended the Anteaters' winning streak to seven matches and solidified the No. 1 national ranking they share with BYU.

UCI Coach David Kniffin substituted with purpose after the No. 15-ranked Gauchos seized the momentum in the first set.

"We were prepared from the game-plan standpoint," Kniffin said. "I just think we were lacking a little bit in energy right off the bat. So, one of the switches we made quickly after Game 1 was to put in Jason Agopian to add a little spark [at middle blocker]. [Starting middle] Collin Mehring is a great volleyball player, but Jason moves a little bit quicker and he is a little more outwardly competitive. Along those same lines, we also brought in [senior libero] Will Thomas, just to provide a little bit of that spark plug and create a little bit of energy. That was nothing technical or tactical. That was us getting over that emotional threshold. Once we got there, I actually thought we played pretty good volleyball."

Agopian had three kills on four swings to hit .500 and added one block assist, while Thomas chipped in two digs and an assist for the winners (11-3, 8-3 in conference).

In addition, Kniffin went to the bench to call upon junior opposite Connor Hughes, who had 11 kills, all in the final three sets, and hit .348.

Travis Woloson and Chris Austin also made brief appearances off the UCI bench to help sculpt the right dynamic to rally past the fired-up Gauchos (5-9, 3-7), who were swept by the 'Eaters at home on Jan. 30.

"One thing I would say about our team and certainly our staff, is that we're good at puzzles," Kniffin said. "Every night in the MPSF, you have to have a little different game plan and strategy. We have to be very tactical about how we attack teams, because there are no perfect teams out there. Every team has a little chink in the armor. It's our job as a staff to find it, then it's the players' job to execute it."

Outside hitters Jeremy Dejno (16 kills, eight digs and one ace to go with a .308 attack percentage), Kevin Tillie (14 kills, 16 digs, two aces and four block assists to go with a .300 hitting percentage) and Hughes (11 kills at a .348 clip) executed well enough to deny the visitors the upset.

Junior setter Daniel Stork had 49 assists, one solo block and one block assist, while middle blocker Scott Kevorken hit .556 with six kills, one ace and three block assists.

UCI hit .295 as a team, 97 points better than the Gauchos, who received six kills, one solo block and three block assists from junior middle blocker Dylan Davis, a Corona del Mar High product.

UCSB's other starting middle, Ryan Thompson, who played at both Costa Mesa High and Corona del Mar High, as well as Orange Coast College, added four kills and six block assists.

UCI has not lost since a Jan. 18 setback at BYU and, just as the Anteaters did at the end of the 2012 NCAA title run, they are beginning to revel in their versatility.

"Anybody on the bench can come in and supply energy and supply a winning attitude," Thomas said. "[Kniffin] trains us to be ready at any point. I'm always ready."

UCI had 19 digs to UCSB's 13 in the final set to finish with a 46-42 advantage in that department. UCSB led in team blocks, 11.5 to nine, while UCI had the advantage in aces (4-2), kills (54-50) and assists (52-49).

The interchangeable nature of the roster has also helped breed confidence, Kniffin said.

"The No. 1 ranking is not just paperwork," Kniffin said. "There's a mentality involved. I think at the beginning of the season, it hurt us to be No. 1, because we hadn't really earned it and it was an opinion poll. Now, guys are starting to feel like they are No. 1."

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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