While riding the momentum of its stirring sweep of UCLA, the #6 UCSB men’s volleyball team put #1 Irvine up against the net in Friday’s match, until the Gauchos collapsed and gave Irvine the game in five, 25-30, 28-30, 30-22, 30-25 and 15-10.
Santa Barbara (5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) started strong in the match, grabbing two sets from the Anteaters (8-0 overall, 4-0 MPSF), a team that had won 21 of its 22 sets this season. But the Gauchos put up a disappointing .200 hitting percentage in game three, and lost their chance to become the first squad this season to knock off the Anteaters.
“We felt like we let down, and that’s not something that we should be doing when we have the number one team in the nation in that position,” sophomore setter Max Klineman said. “There aren’t many teams that can compete with them or with us for that matter, [but] having them down 2-0 at their home isn’t something that we should let slip out of our hands.”
Before the near-upset on its home turf, Irvine had not surrendered two games to anyone thus far this season. In fact, the only team besides UCSB to steal a single game off the Anteaters was Cal Baptist in the season opener on Jan. 3.
“Irvine, BYU and [the Gauchos] have proved that we’re on a different level from other teams in this league so far,” Klineman said. “Hawaii got swept twice by Irvine and they’re in the top five. Good teams will lose to Irvine and get killed.”
Behind senior opposite Evan Patak’s 36 kills, which topped the stat sheet for both squads, UCSB was able to quell Irvine’s early rhythm before it ever got started.
“[In the first two games] we just did everything right; we were serving well, blocking well and hitting well. We were good in transition and we didn’t let them get a chance to get anything going,” Klineman said. “We stopped their momentum before they had it.”
Since the start of the season, Irvine has been touted by opposing players and coaches as standing head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. The consensus seems to be that there are many competitive teams in the MPSF, but Irvine clearly stands alone.
“They’re really dangerous because they have so many good hitters; their setter does a really good job moving the ball around,” Klineman said.
After falling to then-#4 Penn State in the final four last year, the Anteaters had the benefit this season of returning five starting players. They are experienced in every position, consistent and steadily dominant, but the small changeover may be a two-sided coin as top opponents step on the court knowing just what to expect.
“We know this team well, [because] it’s the same team from last year so we know how this team plays. It was knowing the team well that helped us,” Klineman said. “They don’t really have any weaknesses. They’re a good team all the way around. In every position they’re solid. That’s what makes them so good.”
While they failed to get the favored result, the Gauchos showed teams across the nation that contending with Irvine is still possible.
“It wasn’t impossible [to beat Irvine], we just didn’t serve well in the third game and they [did],” Klineman said. “The first two games we served well, so it was easy for us to get two-man blocks on their hitters. [But] when you’re playing behind, you have to be a little more tender from the serving line.”
The Gauchos will have to wait a month for their next chance to topple Irvine’s empire, but they return to action this Friday night at Long Beach with the first serve set for 7 p.m.