Photo Courtesy of UCSD Athletics
Almost 10 months ago to the day, the UC San Diego men’s volleyball team found themselves knocked out of the Big West tournament by the UC Irvine Anteaters. Swept 3–0 to end their season, the Tritons flew home from Hawaii without a conference win on the season, and without any win in their last seven matches. Over the course of the offseason, the team licked their wounds and regrouped, adding new blood and recovering from the injuries of a long season.
Now fast forward to Friday, Feb. 20. One season removed from going 0-10 in conference play, the Tritons are now 12–3 overall, with a pair of conference wins under their belt, the first two in school history. After sweeping the Anteaters 25–22, 25–18, 25–23 in front of a raucous crowd of over 600 fans at RIMAC Arena, UCSD has successfully flipped the script, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
“To be able to come back and give this victory back to our own fans and to win it in three [sets] in front of a great crowd, it’s really fun,” head coach Kevin Ring said.
Six days after taking down UCI on their home turf, UCSD was able to dominate in every facet of the game in the win, showing off a balanced attack on offense, crisp passing, and great team chemistry. With the win, the Tritons racked up their sixth win against a ranked team this season, giving the club a 6–2 record against top-15 opponents despite coming into the season unranked.
“It’s not just the six, seven, or eight guys you see playing in this match,” Ring said. “We’ve got an entire team of guys that have been playing at a really high level in the practice gym, which pushes our starters, and that’s such a key for us.”
The Tritons offense dominated the Anteaters in the first set, but 8 missed serves kept the score tight. After going on an 8–4 run to go up 15–11, UCSD continued to run up the score, with junior outside hitter Kyle McCauley smashing a kill down the line to put the Tritons up by 5 before UCI could respond. McCauley ended the set with a kill with UCSD up 24–22, though head coach Kevin Ring had to challenge the out call to net his team the match point.
“Serving is the only closed skill in the game of volleyball, the ref blows the whistle and all eyes are on you,” Ring said. “You don’t always win if you miss 8 [serves], but to be able to come back and steady yourself is a sign of a really mature team.”
Despite all the missed serves, the Tritons settled into the match in the second set. UCSD capitalized on its first set momentum by streaking out to an eight-point lead with a 5–0 run capped off by a kill from junior opposite Collin Shannon.
“Every kill I get takes some pressure off of [our outside hitters],” Shannon said. “If nothing else I’m just drawing blockers, and after last game [Irvine] knew to key in on our outsides, so it felt good to give our outsides some room to show how good they are.”
From that point on, the Tritons continued to beat down on the Anteaters, especially from the outside positions. McCauley and junior outside hitter Wyatt Harrison combined to score 11 points for UCSD with 5 and 6 kills in the set respectively, stymying any recovery efforts by UCI in route to taking a two-set lead in front of a surging home crowd.
At this point, the Anteaters bench seemed deflated, with plenty of nervous looks on the sideline and on the court to start the third set. As it would turn out, those looks were well deserved, as the Tritons would continue to hit well in the final set.
Despite making the home crowd nervous at the beginning of the third set, UCI could not hang with UCSD late in the set. After knotting the score at 9–9, the Tritons rattled off back-to-back kills; sophomore middle blocker Shane Benetz went over the top of the Anteaters’ seven-footer senior middle blocker Scott Stadick for the kill and a sprawling one-handed dig from senior libero Ryan Lew set up McCauley to put UCSD back up by 2 points.
From that point on, UCI looked lost on offense, struggling to make passes, allowing UCSD to take a five-point lead with the score at 21–16. But there’s a reason the Anteaters came into the match tied for the No. 6 rank in the country. From that point on, UCI came surging back, scoring 6-straight points to take the lead at 22–21, weathering two UCSD timeouts.
But coming out of coach Ring’s second timeout of the set, the Tritons responded by closing out the set to win the match with authority. Ending the match on a 4–1 run, McCauley smashed two kills, including the dagger that ended the set and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
“They definitely started coming back,” Shannon said. “I think we realized it, but we did a good job of closing it out. With the players we have and the coaches we have we have a lot of confidence in our ability to close matches out.”
With back-to-back wins against a ranked Big West opponent under their belts, UCSD awaits a home matchup against UC Santa Cruz before heading on the road to take on UC Santa Barbara and UCLA in the first week of March.