Gauchos Fall to UC Irvine in Five-Set Thriller

Corey Chavers (Photo by Eric Isaacs)
Corey Chavers (Photo by Eric Isaacs)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Behind a standout effort from senior setter Michael Saeta, No. 7 UC Irvine overcame a 2-1 deficit Wednesday night to claim a five-set victory over No. 12 UC Santa Barbara in its MPSF opener at Rob Gym, 28-26, 21-25, 29-31, 25-17, 15-9. 

Saeta had 11 kills on just 14 swings to go with a match-leading five aces, seven digs, and 36 assists. He had eight kills on 10 swings alone in the final two sets, and his constant swings off the pass kept the Gaucho block off balance. With him at the helm, UCI hit .387 in the fourth game to tie it, then rode that momentum to a six-point advantage in the deciding fifth game. 

The Anteaters also received strong performances from outside hitter Tamir Hershko, who had 11 kills over the first two sets, and libero Dillon Hoffman, who had a match-high 16 digs. 

UCSB meanwhile put together a solid team performance, with three players notching double-doubles. Senior outside hitter Jacob Delson led the team in kills for the fourth straight match with 14, while fellow outside Hayden Boehle (11) and freshman middle blocker Keenan Sanders (10) both reached double-digits also. 

Freshman middle Henri Cherry had one of his strongest nights at the net as a Gaucho, picking up a team and season-high seven blocks. Libero Parker Boehle had 10 digs, giving him double-digits in two of four matches this year. 

"It's always tough to lose in five, but I'm very excited about the way our team competed tonight," said UCSB head coach Rick McLaughlin. "UCI stepped up and served extremely well in games four and five. Saeta put his team on his back and made big plays when needed. We need to put this one behind us as fast as possible and focus on a very good UCSD team that will be here on Friday."

Though they eventually lost the set, UCSB showed a preview of the dogfight that was to come in the opening stanza, staving off a pair of Anteater set points at 24-22 – Delson found room with a back row spike before Hayden Boehle tied it with an ace – and forcing extra points. Serving sub Kevin Fults even earned the Gauchos a set point with an ace off the tape at 25-26, but UCI answered back with a kill from Thomas Hodges before middle Matthew Younggren ripped back-to-back aces to win it. 

UCSB played its best volleyball in set two, hitting a blistering .500 and outblocking UCI 4-0 at the net. A Cherry-Corey Chavers double-block capped off an early run that made it 7-2 for the Gauchos, and the home team was able to maintain a multi-point lead throughout the set. Sanders was UCSB's top attacker in the frame, showing good chemistry with setter Casey McGarry en route to four kills on six swings. 

Things took a wild turn in game number three, with the teams see-sawing back and forth to the tune of 18 ties, seven lead changes, and 31 points needed to win it. UCSB led 14-10 at one point, but had to go on the defensive after a 4-0 UCI run tied it. The Gauchos re-took the lead at 28-27 when Chavers hit a beautiful roll shot over the block and just inside the end line, but would have to wait until back-to-back UCI attack errors a few points later to clinch the set. 

The Anteaters turned their game around after the dramatic middle set, using a 10-5 midgame run to create plenty of separation at 20-15. UCSB's attack was never able to get into rhythm, hitting -.100, and UCI ended up winning the fourth with relative ease. 

In the fifth, Saeta ripped an early ace to make it 3-1 then proceeded to notch four kills to keep his team on top. UCI closed the match on a 7-3 run.

The Gauchos resume their season-long seven-match homestand on Friday night as they welcome UC San Diego to Rob Gym. First serve is set for 7:00 p.m.