Men's Volleyball: UCI stumbles at USC

LOS ANGELES — Sometimes before you can find what you need, you need to see what you've got.

The UC Irvine men's volleyball team teetered along that fine line during a six-match, season-opening road trip. Tuesday night was another stumble, as No. 5-ranked USC outlasted the No. 7-ranked Anteaters, 20-25, 25-21, 23-25, 25-19, 15-10, in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match at Galen Center.

UCI (3-3, 0-2 in conference), which has been known for utilizing its depth to alter mid-match momentum in recent years, virtually stuck with its starting lineup for the duration against the Trojans (3-0, 2-0).

UCI received almost flawless play from senior middle blockers Collin Mehring and Scott Kevorken, who had 12 and nine kills respectively, without a single error. Mehring hit .750 and added six block assists and one solo block, while Kevorken hit .500 with three block assists.

Tamir Hershko, a 6-foot-6 freshman opposite from Israel who started and played his first wire-to-wire match, led the Anteaters with 22 kills. But with 53 sets (almost double the next-most-frequent option), the USC blockers began to catch up with him, resulting in a .170 hitting percentage.

Senior outside hitter Connor Hughes had 11 kills and hit .296 for the visitors, but was blocked twice for USC points in the final set, during which he failed to record a kill.

Hershko, whose energetic reactions to his kills seemed to provide emotion for his team, had four kills in the fifth set, while being blocked only once. UCI hit .200 in the deciding game, while the Trojans, led by freshman Lucas Yoder, hit .500 in the fifth set.

Yoder, the cousin of former UCI All-American Cory Yoder, was a consistent force for the hosts, who had three other players post double-digit kills. Yoder finished with a .225 hitting percentage on 40 swings and he added eight digs.

"He just fits so seamlessly into this league," UCI Coach Dave Kniffin said of Yoder, one of three Yoders on the roster for the Trojans, for whom Lucas' uncle and Cory's father, Bob, both played and coached on NCAA title winners. "He seems so much more seasoned than a traditional freshman. That's growing up around the game, but also, he seems to have the right mentality for this conference. It's neat to see, but unfortunate to play against."

It was the Trojans who found answers difficult for UCI in the first and third sets. The Anteaters hit .458 in the opening set, but were in the 200s every subsequent set, while USC, with junior setter Micah Christenson (59 assists and nine digs) triggering the attack, posted strong hitting results in the second (.407), fourth (.423) and the aforementioned fifth sets.

Defense provided the biggest statistical contrast, as USC amassed 53 digs to UCI's 28. Senior libero Henry Cassidy led the winners with 15 digs, while sophomore outside hitter Alex Slaught had 12 to go with 10 kills.

Andy Benesh, a 6-7 freshman middle, had 15 kills and hit .789 for the Trojans.

USC finished with a .292 hitting percentage, just 13 points better than the Anteaters, and had three aces to UCI's one. UCI also had 14 service errors, while USC had 10.

"I thought we rebounded too hard with our serve [from the Pepperdine match, a conference-opening, four-set road loss on Saturday]," Kniffin said. "We were soft against Pepperdine and they were in system all night. Maybe tonight, we pressed a little [from the service line]."

Kniffin has said the two-time-defending NCAA champion Anteaters are still trying to find their identity, but he did not press the issue, in terms of substitutions on Tuesday. Senior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno, who went the distance, had five kills and hit .000, while missing four serves without an ace.

"Right now, in January, my thinking was 'Let's ride this and see what we've got,'" Kniffin said. "Because when we get to the service line in the high 20s [of any set] or in a Game 5, I have to know what a guy can do. In March, [the substitution pattern] may be different."

UCI plays its first home match Friday against BYU at the Bren Events Center at 7 p.m.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World