Entering the Big West men’s volleyball tournament last weekend, the fourth-seeded UC San Diego Tritons were just 3–12, were on a 5-game losing streak, and had never won a postseason game in either Division I or Division II. Meanwhile, the top-seed University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors were a perfect 15–0 on the season, ranked No. 1 in the country, and were the last team to win the conference tournament.
But when the Tritons met the Warriors in the semifinals in Honolulu, it would be UCSD that got the upper hand, defeating the nation’s top team in a thrilling five-set upset, 22–25, 25–23, 16–25, 25–23, 18–16. With the win, the Tritons advanced to the conference finals against No. 3 UC Santa Barbara, and while UCSD came inches from taking a two-set lead, the Gauchos outlasted them to win the conference championship, 22–25, 27–25, 25–21, 25–20.
UCSD advanced to the semifinals after a four-set victory over the California State University, Northridge Matadors on Thursday, April 22. The Matadors won a close first set, 25–20, with a couple of well-timed runs, but UCSD tied the match up with a second-set win, 25–23. In the third set, the Tritons went on a 14–3 run early on to take a commanding lead and held on to win the set 25–16. In set four, both teams had big runs, and while the Matadors came close to an equalizer leading 23–21, 4 consecutive UCSD points won the set and match to put them through to the next round.
Senior outside hitter Kyle McCauley, just named to his second All-Big West First Team, led the Tritons against Northridge with 18 kills, while junior libero Matt Palma had a career-high 14 digs. The match also marked the return of senior outside hitter Wyatt Harrison, who had been out with an injury for almost two months. The win against Northridge was the Tritons’ first-ever playoff victory in Division I — their previous two Big West tournaments produced only a pair of first-round losses to UC Irvine — and set up a matchup the next day with top-ranked Hawaii.
Entering the semifinal, the Tritons had lost to the Rainbow Warriors in every matchup since 2012, including four meetings this season in which the Tritons netted just one set total. In the first set, both teams traded runs early, but an 8–2 run from Hawaii put them up 18–12. While the Tritons scored the next four points to bring the deficit to two, including two McCauley aces, the Warriors would hold on to eke out the set, 25–22.
In the second set, a rash of errors from Hawaii enabled UCSD to get out to a quick 8–3 lead, and they were able to hold onto that lead by a razor’s edge for the remainder of the set. The Warriors got within a single point multiple times down the stretch, but they could never tie or take the lead, and while Hawaii turned away the Tritons’ first two set points, McCauley drilled a kill to even the match at a set apiece, 25–23.
UCSD kept it close early in the third set, but a four-point run from Hawaii that ended with three consecutive attack errors from McCauley had the Warriors up 12–6. The Tritons didn’t get closer than five points away for the rest of the set, and Hawaii coasted to a key third-set victory, 25–16.
With UCSD needing to win both remaining sets to stay alive, both teams went back and forth at the beginning of the fourth set until a 6–1 run from Hawaii put the Rainbow Warriors up 15–12. The Tritons responded soon after with a 5–1 run of their own to take the lead, finished off with an ace from redshirt sophomore outside hitter Ryan Ka. UCSD took a 21–19 lead late in the set, but Hawaii scored 3 straight kills to take a 22–21 lead. But after a service error on the next point, McCauley notched an ace and Ka drove home a crucial kill to give UCSD a pair of set points. The Warriors repelled the first, but Ka nailed the second to send the match to a winner-take-all fifth set.
That fifth set was perhaps the tightest of the match, as both squads stayed within two points of each other for almost the entire set. The Tritons scored the first two points, followed by four straight from Hawaii, and the Rainbow Warriors held a slight lead for most of the set. A pair of errors from Hawaii’s Colton Cowell tied the game, then gave UCSD the lead, 11–10. Though the Warriors got the lead back, another pair of Hawaii errors brought the Tritons to match point, leading 14–13. But Hawaii would score the next two points to bring up a match point of their own, leading 15–14 and needing to win by two scores.
But just as he had all game long, Ryan Ka came up clutch, scoring two straight kills to prevent Hawaii from taking the match and giving UCSD a chance to win it, as they led 16–15. The Warriors tied it back up with a kill, but Ka scored another kill to give UCSD their third match point. With the game on the line, Hawaii’s Colton had his attack blocked by UCSD freshman setter Andrew Boyle to hand the Tritons the upset win against the nation’s top team.
McCauley led the Tritons again with 18 kills, followed by 14 from Ka. Junior middle blocker Shane Benetz, an honorable mention in the All-Big West Team, had a career-high 8 blocks to lead UCSD. The victory wasn’t a dominant one for the Tritons on the box score — indeed, they had a lower hitting percentage as well as fewer kills, aces, assists, and digs — but they got the points they needed at the right times, and that was enough to take down a formidable Rainbow Warriors squad.
“We came in with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder hearing the announcers mention some things about us, how Hawaii was going to have an easy night,” said junior middle blocker Logan Clark after the game. “So we came in with a ton of confidence, and we knew we could win this game, from start to finish.”
“We’ve talked all year about our resilience and the ability to win close sets. When our best was required, the guys showed up tonight. It was a great team effort,” head coach Kevin Ring said. “… It’s exciting to get this victory and beat a team of Hawaii’s caliber, and maybe the first time we’ve knocked off a No. 1-ranked team in the country. But we’re not done.”
That game set up a Big West championship date with third-ranked UCSB, which had also never before made it to the conference title game. Like Hawaii, Santa Barbara had UCSD’s number all season — the Gauchos had defeated the Tritons in all five matchups this season, including three sweeps.
In the first set of the title match, neither team could get the upper hand early, and while UCSD strung together a 5–1 run to go up 15–12 midway through the set, Santa Barbara scored the next 3 to tie it up. Still, the Tritons held a slight lead at the end of the set, and kills from McCauley and Ka delivered the first set to UCSD, 25–22.
The Tritons would also lead for much of the second set, looking to put the Gauchos in a two-set hole that would be difficult to salvage. Late in the set with the score 20–18, a controversial call against UCSB gave UCSD a key point, and a block by Benetz on the next play gave UCSD control of the set, up 22–18. The Gauchos responded with a 5–1 run, ending with a block on Triton senior opposite hitter Collin Shannon that was originally called out of bounds, but was reversed upon review to tie the set up at 23. UCSD scored next to bring up a set point, but they couldn’t convert, and the Gauchos scored 4 of the next 5 points and won the set on a net violation from McCauley, 27–25.
After a down-to-the-wire second set, UCSB seemed like they had much of the momentum going into the third, but the Tritons kept it close early on. Down the stretch, though, the Gauchos proved more able to string together points, and despite a big block from McCauley and Clark to bring the Tritons within 2, UCSB held onto their slim lead to take the crucial third set, 25–21.
Looking to finish off the Tritons, the Gauchos scored the first 4 points of the set. Despite some great defensive play from UCSB, however, the Tritons were able to battle back, with a 5–0 run halfway through the set that ended with a block from Shannon and a wayward shot from UCSB to put UCSD up 11–10. It was a tense series of points after that, as the Tritons sought to equalize the match as they had the night before, and the Gauchos looked to put away a UCSD team that refused to go away. But with the Tritons up 17–16 after an impressive dig from Palma, UCSB scored the next 4 to take a 20–17 lead. UCSD narrowed that lead to 22–20, but Santa Barbara finished off the final 3 points of the match to win the set, 25–20, and the match, earning their first Big West championship and a berth in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
UCSD was led in kills by Shannon and McCauley with 13, followed by Ka with 12. Shannon also had a career-high 7 blocks, while Palma once again tied his career high with 14 digs. While the Tritons held an opponent to under .200 hitting for just the second time this season, they were still outhit by UCSB .190 to .173. UCSD also had a season-high 23 service errors. Fatigue might have been a factor for UCSD in the loss, as they were playing their third game in as many nights — the Gauchos, meanwhile, had a first-round bye — and the final ended at around 1 a.m. Pacific time due to the Hawaiian time difference.
The deep tournament run caps off an unusual, pandemic-shortened season for UCSD men’s volleyball, in which the Tritons often struggled against a grueling Big West schedule. Still, the performance of Ring’s squad in the conference tournament, including the upset defeat of consensus No. 1 Hawaii, shows that the Tritons can very much hang with the best teams in the country on their best nights.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Lee