In only the second week of the season, the growing pains for college men’s volleyball teams remain at epidemic levels.
But in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation opener on Friday between No. 4-ranked UC Irvine and No. 2-ranked UCLA, it’s the way members of the visiting Bruins grew up that has their coach, former UCI head man John Speraw, most excited.
The Bruins’ 25-19, 24-26, 25-23, 25-23 victory obviously buoyed Speraw’s mood, as the Anteaters (1-2) fell for the first time in four tries against UCLA (4-0) despite winning the battle of hitting and setting efficiency, and posting more digs.
UCLA earned a slight edge in blocking, and had eight of the match’s 10 aces.
But it’s the systemic difference that stood out, as it will in every UCLA match this season.
“We don’t have a senior on the floor and we’re playing a system [a 6-2 utilizing dual setters] that hasn’t been used in the men’s game since 1984,” Speraw said. “But we have a very unique opportunity right now to play with a bunch of guys who have grown up with the game and can do all the skills pretty well, so it’s exciting for us. It’s a difficult system to prepare for and it’s difficult to coach, too. If you’re a football team and you decide to play two quarterbacks, how hard is it to dial in all your pass routes? That’s why nobody does [the 6-2]. Essentially, we’re risking that [hitter-setter] connection for better versatility.”
Facing the unusual system, as well as more high-level competition, seems to be unveiling some early weaknesses for UCI, Anteaters Coach David Kniffin said.
“There is just a lot of work to be done,” Kniffin said. “They are things we kind of knew about in the fall, but sometimes it takes the competition of an opponent to expose them. We can talk about it and practice it, but until guys don’t have success against an opponent outside our own practice, gym, it can be hard for them to recognize [weaknesses].”
Competitiveness is still a strength for UCI, which rallied from a 17-11 deficit to claim the second set, and volleyed consistently well against the Bruins in a match that featured 47 tie scores and 18 lead changes, including at least three leads changes in every set.
UCI hit .292 as a team, 23 points better than the Bruins, and the ‘Eaters were 10 percentage points better with their setting. UCI also had a 42-34 cushion in digs.
UCLA, however, posted a 9.5-9 blocking edge and the aforementioned serving advantage.
UCI’s 14 service errors were two more than the Bruins.
Junior All-American Tamir Hershko had a match-high 20 kills and hit .436 to lead the hosts, in front of an energized 2,232 at the Bren Events Center.
Senior Kyle Russell had 15 kills, but hit just .162 for UCI, for which junior setter Michael Saeta stood out with 42 assists, seven digs, six kills and one ace.
Senior All-MPSF middle blocker Jason Agopian had five kills and a team-best four block assists, as well as one of UCI’s two solo blocks. But he hit .000 and was outdone by UCLA middles Mitch Stahl and Oliver Martin.
Stahl, who earned National Player of the Week honors after pacing UCLA wins over George Mason, Ohio State and Penn State, had 14 kills, hit a crisp .458 and added a match-best five block assists.
The 6-foot-10 Martin had six kills on 12 swings (.500) and added four block assists.
Dual setters Micah Ma’a, a freshman from Hawaii, and Hagen Smith, a sophomore, had 23 and 29 assists, respectively, Ma’a led the team with nine digs, while chipping in eight kills (.389) and posting two aces, one of which provided match point.
“Ma’a is one of the best setters in the country, and, gosh, you watch him hit and he’s one of the best hitters in the country, too,” Speraw said. “
Five Bruins had aces, including sophomore outside hitter Jake Arnitz, who had 14 kills (.344) and four block assists.
“UCI is a good, physical team that knows how to win and has been here before,” Speraw said. “So, I think we started off the year with some nice wins back East, and I think the team is feeling confident. And, we still have wonderful room to improve.”
UCI, which visits UCLA on Feb. 10, hopes to at least match that improvement.
“It was a good match, especially for January,” Kniffin said. “It was a No. 4 vs. No. 2 matchup and that’s what it felt like.”
UCI players wore black arm bands to honor Tim Vorenkamp, a former JSerra High standout that previously committed to play for the Anteaters, but subsequently was diagnosed with cancer and died Sunday, Kniffin said. Vorenkamp, for whom a memorial service was held Friday in Irvine, would have been a freshman setter at UCI this season.