It was a short trip to Hawaii for UC San Diego’s No. 9 men’s volleyball team, as they were eliminated in the first round of the Big West conference tournament on Thursday by rival UC Irvine in straight sets, 25–23, 25–20, and 30–28. The Tritons end the season 13–11 and 5–5 in the Big West after the loss, after having reached the finals of the tournament the year prior.
Entering Thursday’s match in the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii, the UCSD Tritons looked to have the advantage; they had the better record and a season sweep of the UC Irvine Anteaters, 11–15 and 3–7 in the Big West, under their belt. In the 2021 tournament, UCSD had taken down undefeated national No. 1 Hawaii in a five-set thriller before falling to UC Santa Barbara in the finals, and they entered this year’s tournament looking to make similar noise.
Both teams kept it close in the opening stages of the first set, with the Tritons getting the first point on a kill from star senior outside hitter Kyle McCauley. After some back-and-forth play, UCSD took a 13–9 lead, the largest yet, on a 3–0 run capped off by a kill from redshirt junior outside hitter and San Marcos product Ryan Ka. But after that run, UC Irvine hit right back with a 4–0 run of their own, the final 2 points of which came on a pair of impressive team blocks, and tied the match back up. The Anteaters soon got another 4–0 run to go up 19–16, but UCSD managed to tie things back up at 21 and 22. But Irvine would get 3 of the final 4 points of the set to eke out the advantage by the closest of margins, 25–23.
The match remained close as the action moved into the second set, and another McCauley kill put UCSD up 7–6 early. But 4 straight from Irvine kicked off by a Ka service error put them in the driver’s seat in the crucial second set. For the Tritons, the offense dried up, as even with 6 Irvine service errors down the stretch, they still strayed further from the lead. A late 5–1 run to draw within three was too little, too late for UCSD, and Irvine took the commanding 2–0 set lead, 25–20.
The Tritons once again had a tenuous lead to open the third set, with 3 early kills from senior middle blocker Logan Clark helping UCSD to an 8–5 advantage. But unlike in the last two sets, UCSD did manage to hold onto that lead down the stretch, trading points back and forth with the Anteaters. But leading 20–18 and looking to spark a comeback, the Tritons couldn’t accomplish the first piece of that puzzle, as after an Irvine block, a Ka attack error, and an Anteater kill, UCSD suddenly found itself down 21–20. It wasn’t over yet, though, as McCauley equalized on the next play, and the teams continued to trade blows.
A McCauley ace late had the Tritons at set point, but UCSD couldn’t get it done on the next play. After Irvine failed to convert a match point of their own on a Clark kill, they finally ended the match on a kill followed by a stuff block on McCauley to earn the set three victory, 30–28, and the sweep.
The match will be a heartbreaker for the Tritons, with a triplet of very winnable sets being the difference between moving on in the tournament and the straight-sets defeat they received. But though it was close all night, the Tritons were by some margin the less efficient team, hitting only .230 to the Anteaters’ .405. Irvine also showed their strength on defense, with 8 blocks to the Tritons’ 3.
On the stat sheet, the Tritons were led in kills by McCauley, in his final collegiate match, with 13 and Ka with 9. Senior setter Blake Crisp had himself a nice night as well, with 31assists. On defense, senior outside hitter Wyatt Harrison, also in his last UCSD contest, led the squad by being involved in all three of the team’s blocks.
After the match, Triton coach Kevin Ring expressed his feelings about the frustrating loss.
“Tough loss tonight… Coming in, we were real confident,” said Ring. “…The third set was pretty fun late, to give the crowd a show, but unfortunately we came up short. I would have loved to send it to a fourth set, and see what these guys and the rest of the guys in our locker room could have done, because we were going to keep battling.”
On a more positive note, Harrison noted postgame the support the Tritons had on the road, including from the UCSD women’s water polo team, who were in Honolulu for their own Big West tournament. “It was great. We have a lot of senior guys on our team, so a lot of families made the trip. We also had our women’s water polo team — we went to their game earlier, they got a good win and we were cheering loud for them — so it was nice to have them come back supporting us, and it was awesome.”
Image courtesy of UC San Diego Athletics