It didn’t come easy, but No. 1 UC Irvine started its national title defense with a victory.
The two-time defending NCAA champions UC Irvine rallied from a one-deficit to defeat No. 10 Lewis 21-25, 25-19, 26-24, 25-23 on Wednesday in Romeoville, Ill., to open the 2014 college men’s volleyball season.
“It was actually what we were expecting out of a January match,” UC Irvine coach David Kniffin said. “I don’t think that we were real sharp. I think we have a team that can win dirty and fight. I thought we had a little of that tonight.”
UC Irvine in the victory out-blocked Lewis 14 to 13.5 as All-American middle attacker Collin Mehring had a team-high seven blocks, while middle attacker Scott Kevorken finished with six blocks. In addition, Lewis middle attacker Bobby Walsh led his team with seven blocks in the loss.
Kniffin said he was pleased with how well his middle attackers were able to set the pace of the match and slow down the Flyers’ offense.
“Our middles are what have always set the tone at Irvine defensively. They run our defense,” Kniffin said. “It’s not just when they stuff balls, but they do so many of those intangibles things where they slow down the pace of the game for our other blockers.”
After finishing among the national leaders last season in team attack percentage, UC Irvine picked up the season-opening victory despite both teams having less than a .200 attack percentage. UC Irvine in the non-conference match out-hit Lewis .184 to .159
Following its opening game loss when the Anteaters had a match-worst .080 attack percentage, Kniffin opted to bench starting setter Roberto Frazzoni for freshman Michael Saeta.
Saeta in college debut finished with 30 assists and helped guide the Anteaters offense to more than a .200 attack percentage in the second and third game.
“We just looked a little bit out of synch and out of rhythm [in the first game],” Kniffin said. “It’s still early enough in the season where we are trying some things out. We wanted to give Michael a chance and since were losing that first set it seemed like the right opportunity.”
UC Irvine had two players finish with double-digit kills against Lewis.
Outside attackers Zack La Cavera and Jeremy Dejno both finished with a match-high 14 kills in the victory. In addition, outside attacker Connor Hughes, a Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Preseason All-American selection, added nine kills.
Outside attackers Greg Petty and Geoff Powell both led Lewis with 13 kills.
Along with the play of his team, Kniffin said he was impressed with the play of Lewis’ outside attackers and how well the Flyers looked at the start of the year
“That is a very good team that will be dangerous at the end of the year,” he said. “I’m glad that we got to them early in the season because I think after a couple of matches they will be a lot tougher.”
UC Irvine despite blowing an early 4-0 lead in the fourth game was able to take a 24-20 lead. However, Lewis survived three match-points before the match ended on a serving error.
Lewis in the third game rallied from a late three-point deficit and fought off one game-point to force overtime. In the overtime, though, a Flyers’ serving error and a La Cavera kill secured the win for the Anteaters.
La Cavera also finished the third game with a game-high six kills.
With the second game tied at five, UC Irvine went on a four-point run and led by as many six points before taking the game to even the match. Hughes also added a game-high five kills
Walsh in the opening game led all players with four blocks to help lead the Flyers to a four-point win. In addition, Walsh had a kill and a block during the Lewis’ 6-1 run midway through the first game to give the Flyers a six-point lead.
The comeback victory prevents the Anteaters from becoming the first defending NCAA champion in 12 years to lose their season opener.
UC Irvine will continue its three-match Midwest road trip as it plays travels to play No. 7 Loyola at 7 p.m. Thursday. Lewis will also continue its season-opening homestand with a match against No. 3 BYU on Saturday.
The match between UC Irvine and Loyola will be a rematch of the NCAA Tournament semifinals last season, which the Anteaters won in three games.
Kniffin said similar to match against Lewis he expects playing Loyola on the road to be a challenge for his team. The coach also said the familiarity with the Ramblers from last season should help the Anteaters prepare for the upcoming non-conference match.
“We are expecting a team that plays and crazy in-system volleyball,” Kniffin said. “At least we feel fimilar with the personale. I feel like we are a better team when we see our opponents more times. We get better because stop thinking about them and focus on us more.”