Something’s Bruin at UCSD, Tritons stun No. 3 UCLA in straight sets

Praveen Nair

The score was 6–54. That was UC San Diego’s all-time record against the UCLA Bruins in men’s volleyball before Friday, with the last UCSD Tritons win coming all the way back in 2012. That’s the backdrop under which the current iteration of the Bruins came to La Jolla, with an undefeated record and ranked No. 3 in the nation. Having lost their last 14 against UCLA, the Tritons’ chances at victory seemed slim at best, and a sweep would have been unthinkable.

But there’s a reason they play the games.

UCSD dominated the match from wire to wire, taking the match 25–22, 25–17, 2521 in front of a rollicking Spirit Night crowd of 917 at RIMAC Arena. Junior outside hitters Kyle McCauley and Wyatt Harrison led the team with 13 and 11 kills, respectively, as coach Kevin Ring’s squad took down their highest-ranked opponent since, in a poetic twist, a March 2012 win against a then-No. 3 UCLA.

UCSD came out strong in the first set, and after a back-and-forth opening sequence, two straight Bruin errors followed by a Harrison kill gave the Tritons an 11–7 lead going into a timeout. But after the pause, a deflating series of errors from the Tritons evened the match at 13. The Tritons would hold a tenuous lead for the remainder of the set, but that lead was all they needed. With the score 23–21 following a costly UCSD net violation, junior opposite hitter Collin Shannon dove forward to keep the ball in play off the ground, and on the next return, Shannon joined sophomore middle blocker Logan Clark on a block that landed for a Triton set point. Two serves later, a McCauley spike bounced out off a blocker to hand the Tritons the first set by 3.

The Tritons continued their onslaught in the second set, as a Harrison kill kicked off a 7–0 run to go up 7–1 early. (“Septuple the score! Septuple the score!” taunted the UCSD pep band. “That’s times seven!”) After the score reached 10–2 on a four-hit call on UCLA, the Bruins were forced to call a timeout, and the Triton crowd began to smell blood. (“Quintuple the score!” cheered the pep band. “That’s times five!”) A 4–0 Triton run on McCauley’s serve increased the lead to 16–5, and despite a late 5–1 run, McCauley finished off the set with a kill to take the 2–0 lead. 

On their last leg, the Bruins came out firing in the third set, taking their largest lead of the night after a kill from senior outside hitter Austin Matautia made it 7–4. But UCSD fought back, and with the score tied at 8, senior setter Connor Walbrecht made an electrifying block on the right side to absolutely stuff Bruin freshman outside hitter Alex Knight at the net, firing up the crowd and giving the Tritons the lead. Five serves later, both McCauley and Walbrecht made diving saves to keep a ball in play, and Harrison ended the rally with a massive kill to take the 12–10 lead. Later, Shannon delivered an absolute beauty of an ace into the back left corner to give the Tritons the 19–13 lead. The match ended as Walbrecht made his game-high 28th assist to sophomore middle blocker Shane Benetz, who slammed it home for the sweep of the Bruins. The crowd erupted, and the players poured onto the court in celebration.

After the match, 15th-year coach Ring praised the resilience of his squad: “Any little slip-ups we had, we got ourselves right back on track – and that’s the sign of a really strong team, to be able to keep your composure when your opponent is very good and they’re pushing back,” Ring said. “To see the guys’ composure in the late game—we were the better team after 20, after 18, and it was a great fight.”

The Triton domination was evident on the box score, as they more than doubled the Bruin hit percentage (.360 to .179). In addition to McCauley and Harrison’s kill numbers, Shannon led both sides with 2 aces, 3 blocks, and 10 digs. The win was UCSD’s second against a ranked opponent this season, after a season-opening five-set win against Loyola University Chicago. 

Tactically, Ring noted the team’s technical execution as another reason for the win. “We served really well, pushed their guys off the net … We just really stayed on task,” Ring said. “Every match we talk about some things we need to do a little better – we had a couple things before this match, and they did [those things] tonight. So that’s just the credit of a veteran team working hard, and the entire staff and players putting in a lot of work.”

The Tritons will try and carry the momentum from the UCLA win (and the previous contest, another straight-set victory against Vassar College) into a four-game road trip, before returning to La Jolla to face Princeton University on Jan. 28.

“The season’s early, and we’ve got a lot of matches ahead of us, and a lot of training to do,” Ring said. “It’s simple to say, but just one match at a time.” 

But while Ring might emphasize that Friday’s victory was just another notch in the win column, to the hundreds of fans who streamed out of RIMAC Arena following the program’s biggest win in seven years, nothing could seem further from the truth.