Men's Volleyball: 'Eaters improve position

Before the season began, UC Irvine men's volleyball coach David Kniffin said he needed to see as much adversity for his team as possible.

Now 19 matches in, the prophecy has largely come true, as the two-time-defending NCAA champion Anteaters entered Friday's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation home match against UC Santa Barbara in ninth place.

Since only the top eight in the 13-school conference make the MPSF Tournament, from which the winner emerges with a guaranteed berth in the NCAA Tournament, even the most conservative observer might note that UCI is living a bit on the edge.

But the No. 9-ranked 'Eaters appeared anything but a team on the brink Friday, as they handled No. 6-ranked UCSB, 25-17, 25-19, 24-26, 25-20, to improve to 11-8, 8-7 in conference.

The victory, the second straight for UCI to match its longest winning streak in 2014 (achieved three times previously), helped the 'Eaters move past Stanford (6-6) into eighth place. Stanford lost to Long Beach State in four games on Friday.

Senior middle blocker Scott Kevorken had 14 kills with just one error in 21 swings (a .619 hitting percentage) and also had four block assists and one ace serve to help UCI earn a season sweep of the Gauchos (9-5, 8-5).

Senior outside hitter Connor Hughes had 15 kills to lead the winners and hit .379 with a match-high 14 digs.

Senior middle blocker Collin Mehring had 10 kills, hit .526, and shared the team lead with six block assists, while senior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno had 13 kills, six block assists, five digs, hit .300 and had one ace.

Senior setter Daniel Stork had 50 assists, three block assists, one solo block and one assist and junior libero Michael Brinkley had nine digs for UCI.

All in all, a raging success for a program used to a lot of just that, especially in the postseason. At this point, Kevorken said, the Anteaters are focused on grinding out another postseason opportunity.

"We've obviously dug ourselves a little bit of a whole, so every match is almost a have-to win," Kevorken said. "A lot of guys have accepted that mind-set and we go out ready to take advantage of every opportunity we get, because we love fighting. I think that's a really big thing with this team. I think we are accepting any challenge and it's awesome."

UCI hit .326 as a team, 110 points better than the Gauchos, and won the blocking battle, 11.5-9. The hosts also did not commit an error on 72 serves received, and amassed 62 kills, 13 more than UCSB.

Weston Nielsen, a 6-foot-6 junior outside hitter out of Corona del Mar High, came off the bench to record 12 kills, trailing only Evan Licht (16) for the visitors.

"We've had adversity and it has been great," Kniffin said. "It's what I wanted, it's where we're at, and I'm staying true to that. If this team keeps getting tested and pushed and faced with adversity for the next month, we're a team that will be very dangerous for the playoffs."

UCI visits No. 11-ranked Hawaii for a pair of matches next week (Friday and Sunday) and has another two-match road trip the following week, including a March 14 contest at No. 2-ranked BYU.

UCI has nine regular-season conference matches remaining.

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