UCSD upsets No. 1 CSUSB in a five-game battle

    There was no trick, but the 962 fans that turned out for the Halloween night match between No. 4 UCSD and top-ranked Cal State San Bernardino were treated to a classic. The mass of brightly costumed fans rushing onto the court after Bonnie Wilson put down her match-high 25th kill on the night to finish the 3-2 (28-30, 30-22, 23-30, 30-24 and 15-12) Triton victory seemed a fitting end to the two hour and 25 minute emotional rollercoaster ride.

    Carina Weber/Guardian
    Thriller night: At Halloween Showdown, the No. 4 Tritons upset top-ranked Cal State San Bernardino in front of a raucous crowd at RIMAC Arena.

    Before the Tritons could get their shot at the Coyotes of Cal State San Bernardino, however, they first had to play the only team to defeat the Coyotes in California Collegiate Athletic Association play thus far this season ‹ the Broncos of Cal Poly Pomona.

    UCSD head coach Duncan McFarland keyed the match as critical to his team’s ability to recover from a tough road trip.

    “”I think we really had our confidence shaken with the losses to [Cal State] Bakersfield and [Cal State Los Angeles] and we’re struggling to get it back,”” he said.

    With a revamped lineup that featured Lauren Mills at libero and Lindsay Crandell at opposite, the Tritons were able to charge out to a quick 30-21 victory in game one. Cal Poly Pomona held a three-point lead early in the match, but solid hitting that produced 19 kills and just three errors along with middle blocker Katie Hogan’s three solo blocks pushed UCSD on to the win.

    Game two saw the Tritons streak out to a 9-2 lead and never look back as they took their second consecutive 30-21 decision. The going was not as easy in game three, however, as a re-energized Bronco squad took a five-point lead at 16-11 and threatened to push the match to a fourth game. The Tritons stayed with the Broncos to the end with Wilson bringing it back level at 29. With the tension building, Ohta hit a soft, low serve toward the front right corner of the court that hit the top of the net, teetered dangerously backward, and then dropped on the other side for an ace that gave the Tritons a 30-29 lead. They closed the match on the next play.

    Mills picked up a match-high 17 digs for UCSD while Ohta added 12 to go with her 44 assists.

    UCSD turned around the next night to face the top team in both the nation and the CCAA with a chance to close the two-game lead the Coyotes held over the Tritons going into the match. For many of the players, however, the Oct. 31 match was about more than just a game in the standings.

    “”It’s just the pride,”” said Mills. “”When they win, they wear it well and they show it off, and so we’d like to wear it this year.””

    In game one, UCSD looked poised to take control of the match early with a 6-2 run, but from there forward it was back and forth. After Cal State San Bernardino closed to within two points at 14-12, the Tritons went on an 8-3 run to open up a seven-point lead at 22-15. They retained that margin at 27-20 and seemed to be on the brink of taking the first game before UCSD suffered a breakdown, allowing the Coyotes to take 10 of the next 11 points and game one by a 30-28 score.

    “”We might have gotten sort of complacent, and we knew we had a lead,”” Wilson said.

    The Tritons came back strong in game two. Five straight service points by Dunsmore midway through gave UCSD the cushion it needed to grab a 30-22 win and to even the match.

    McFarland was impressed with his team’s resiliency.

    “”Losing that first game with such a big lead was really a hard thing to come back from when you know you’ve had a great opportunity you’ve let slip away,”” he said. “”I thought they showed really good character to fight back from that in the second game.””

    The Tritons were in need of that resiliency once again after the offense sputtered in game three, producing 15 kills and continuing 10 errors ‹ many of which were forced by the Coyote block that allowed Cal State San Bernardino to grab a 2-1 advantage with a 30-23 win.

    UCSD did a better job of neutralizing the Coyote block in game four and the offense played nearly mistake-free volleyball while amassing a .400 attacking percentage as the Tritons rolled, 30-24. Backup setter Denelle Smalley saw some action as a back row specialist for UCSD and helped to stabilize her team with consistent defense and passing to force a decisive fifth game.

    With tensions running high and the crowd clamoring for the Tritons to rise to the occasion, the team felt obliged to come up with something special.

    “”It was fabulous to have such a great enthusiastic crowd out here,”” McFarland said. “”I started thinking, ŒGod, if for no other reason we’ve got to win this for this great crowd. We can’t disappoint them.'””

    Disappointment seemed to be looming for the Tritons as Cal State San Bernardino reeled off several key points and held an 11-8 lead in the race to 15 before the Tritons stormed back. After picking up a sideout on a Wilson kill to close the margin to two, Hogan ‹the unlikely serving hero ‹ stepped up and served two aces and five straight points to give the Tritons three attempts to finish the match at 14-11. UCSD converted on the second game point and the court was flooded with throngs of exuberant fans who flowed out and piled onto the players. The atmosphere was electric.

    “”That was huge,”” Smalley said. “”It felt like the national championship.””

    The win avenged the Tritons’ loss to the Coyotes earlier this year in San Bernardino in which a similarly epic battle took place, only with a significantly different result. When asked later whether or not her team entertained thoughts about the possibility of falling again to the Coyotes, Wilson responded firmly.

    “”No, none,”” she said. “”We knew we could do it and we fought and we were willing to work hard.””

    Wilson led all players with 25 kills while four of her teammates ‹ Hogan, Dunsmore, Crandell, and middle blocker Kendra Canape ‹also put up double-digit kill totals. Canape led UCSD with six total blocks, Mills had a match-high 24 digs, and Teresa Ohta dished out 63 assists on the night.

    The Tritons currently sit in second place in CCAA and await the release of both the regional and national rankings due out this week. Should UCSD win the rest of its conference matches and the Coyotes lose at least one, the Tritons would grab at least a share of the CCAA title and have a very good chance of hosting the West Regional, where a rematch with Cal State San Bernardino is likely. Should that rematch occur, UCSD believes it has the mental edge.

    “”They’re going to remember this one and hopefully the playoffs will be right here in our gym,”” Smalley said.

    The Tritons continue on their quest toward making that dream a reality as they host Grand Canyon on Nov. 5 for a mid-week bout. First serve at RIMAC is at 7 p.m.

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