UCSD Upsets Defending D-I Champs

    Freshman setter Phil Bannan set the tone for an upset early against No. 7 UC Irvine, notching back-to-back aces in game one en route to a win on Jan. 19. (Will Parson/Guardian File)

    MEN’S VOLLEYBALL — It was only a matter of time before the
    UCSD men’s volleyball team broke through in conference play. After suffering
    three straight losses to ranked opponents, the Tritons earned their first
    victory in the tough Mountain Pacific Sports Federation on Jan. 19, knocking
    off Division I defending national champions UC Irvine 30-25, 30-22, 31-33,
    34-32.

    The win marked the program’s first victory over the
    Anteaters since 2004, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Tritons
    suffered three tough losses to open up conference play but were contenders in
    each game, and wins could have been within reach if a few balls bounced their
    way.

    Sophomore outside hitter Jason Spangler spoke on the team’s
    behalf about how important the victory was.

    “We were all excited to finally get that win,” he said. “We
    gained some confidence finally seeing just how well we can play when we cut
    down on our errors. Overall, it was a well-deserved win.”

    Head coach Kevin Ring echoed Spangler’s comments, saying
    that his players had come close in previous matches, but that they finally
    clicked against UCI because the Tritons finished the plays when they needed to.

    “We really haven’t been taking advantage of our
    opportunities,” he said. “During practice we’ve concentrated on improving our
    first-swing percentages and against Irvine we were quite efficient. We closed
    out games very well. It was really a combination of things that did it, but
    Phil [Bannan] did a great job of feeding the hot hitters and taking advantage
    of our matchups with shorter blockers on the outside.”

    Falling behind early in game one, freshman setter Bannan got
    the Tritons’ engines revved up with back-to-back aces to tie the game at 16.
    The lead opened up to three at 25-22 after an ace by sophomore libero Erik
    Sierks. The Anteaters closed within one, but freshman middle blocker Gerald
    Houseman slammed down two kills en route to a Triton game one victory.

    The momentum carried into game two, with UCSD opening an
    18-12 lead and cruising to an eight-point win.

    Senior outside hitter Russ Hardy tallied a pair of kills and
    aces to put the Tritons in position for a three-game sweep, 26-22.

    But what has become a theme for the Tritons all season
    proved to be their Achilles heel yet again, as they squandered another
    late-game lead to give the defending champions a comeback opening.

    Despite the loss in game three, Spangler was pleased with
    how quickly the team responded.

    “Having a team come back is something very hard to cope
    with,” he said. “It can be devastating, but for the first time we didn’t look
    back. We just kept thinking about the next point and the next game.”

    Despite seeing their late-game lead evaporate in game three,
    the Tritons maintained their mental sharpness and showed their composure in
    games one and two, jumping out to an early 4-1 lead. UCSD held onto its
    three-point advantage until UC Irvine went on an 8-1 run to take a 25-21 lead.

    Not to be outdone, the Tritons used a small run to tie the
    game at 25 and the two teams traded points until UCSD earned its first match
    point. The Anteaters staved off the loss and managed a game point of its own
    before Hardy recorded two kills around a Houseman ace to take the match.

    Hardy finished with a career-high 24 kills and didn’t seem
    to show any signs of rust after his year-long hiatus studying abroad.

    “Russ has had an impact on this team since the beginning,”
    Ring said. “He’s gotten better each game in his hitting and his legs are
    getting accustomed to the everyday jumping. The improvements are carrying over
    into each match and you’re seeing that in his stats.”

    The win helped heal the wounds from a 30-21, 30-28, 30-26
    sweep by No. 4 UCLA over the Tritons on Jan. 17. UCSD held leads late in games
    two and three but was unable to
    capitalize in both instances.

    With nothing positive to dwell on in the opening game, the
    Tritons showed signs of life in game two, holding a three-point lead throughout
    the better half of the game. The Bruins tied up the game late and the two teams
    traded leads until Houseman and Hardy gave UCSD a 28-26 lead. UCLA responded
    with a four-point run coming out of a timeout to steal the game.

    Game three was very similar, with the teams tied late at 25,
    but the Bruins scored five of the next six to take the match.

    Ring said he wasn’t very disappointed with the way the team
    performed at UCLA and admitted that it was an off night for both squads.

    “They didn’t play that great and we didn’t play that great,”
    he said. “Out of the three games, we gave ourselves opportunities in two of
    them and we just weren’t able capitalize. It’s a learning experience for us.”

    The road doesn’t get any easier for the Tritons in MPSF play
    as they’ll fly to Honolulu
    for a pair of contests against No. 12 Hawaii on Jan. 23 and Jan. 25, where
    crowds are expected to reach the thousands, according to Spangler.

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