Men's Volleyball: UCI keeps its cool

IRVINE — In a momentum sport such as volleyball, there is a lot to be said for temperature control. The trick is to remain just cool enough not to freeze, especially in the polar extreme of a decisive fifth set.

At UC Irvine, a history of flat-lining emotions has served as the metaphoric earmuffs that most often protect the Anteaters from cracking under pressure.

"We're pretty good in Game 5," said UCI Coach David Kniffin, whose unflappable sideline presence, cultivated under years beside former coach John Speraw, helps set the tone for a program that added to its reputation for taming tumult Wednesday night.

After dropping Games 3 and 4, UCI steadied itself to come away with a 25-19, 25-19, 24-26, 16-25, 15-11 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation win that extends the top-ranked Anteaters' winning streak to 11 matches.

UCI, the defending NCAA champion that won three national titles in the previous six seasons under Speraw, avenged a loss to the No 12-ranked Lancers, who stunned the 'Eaters in five sets in Riverside on Jan. 17.

But that was the lone five-set loss in six fully extended matches this season for UCI, which hopes to parlay what could have been a midweek misstep into a successful home showdown with No. 2-ranked BYU on Friday.

"If there's something about this team, we're going to be composed, even if we're not playing great volleyball," Kniffin said. "To the non-coach observing, we look the same all the time. The level of volleyball fluctuates, but the demeanor and the way they all come together as a team stays pretty consistent."

UCI (15-3, 12-3 in conference) used all its collective composure to control the fifth set, hitting .368 as a team when it mattered most after posting hitting percentages of .108 in Game 3 and .094 in Game 4.

Cal Baptist (6-9, 3-7), a Division II school in its first season of MPSF membership, had three hitting errors and missed two serves in the decisive set to see its upset hopes dashed.

"I don't want to discount the value of our composure in Game 5," Kniffin said. "If there's a bright spot [Wednesday], it's that. And we've shown we can do that over the course of time."

UCI's Connor Hughes who virtually split time with fellow junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno, had half of his eight kills in the final set, which was tied at every point through 8-8, before UCI "held" serve to go ahead, 10-8, then pulled away.

Senior All-American Kevin Tillie led the winners with 13 kills, while sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera had 12 to go with seven block assists.

UCI junior Collin Mehring had two solo blocks and a career-best eight block assists to help the hosts post a season-best 18.5 team blocks, eight better than the Lancers. Mehring added six kills, matching fellow middle blocker Scott Kevorken who chipped in five block assists.

Tillie had four block assists to go with two of his team's four aces, while setter Daniel Stork had one solo block and five block assists to go with his 43 set assists.

UCI hit .220 as a team, 50 points better than the visitors, who had 18 service errors, two more than the 'Eaters.

"People may look at the box score and see 18 blocks and think, 'Wow, Irvine blocked well,'" Kniffin said. "But anyone who was here tonight saw that that was some of the sloppiest volleyball we've played all season."

Not sloppy enough to halt the shelf life of the current winning streak, which began after a four-set loss to BYU in Provo on Jan. 18.

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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