Brandon Johnson | Off the Block special contributor
IRVINE, California — The stage was set as two titans of the sport met on Friday night as No. 7/8 UC Irvine, a four-time national champion, played host to 19-time NCAA champions No. 6/6 UCLA.
The energy in the Bren Events Center was palpable from the first whistle as the early arriving crowd roared with each serve. On a night when the host Anteaters were supporting breast cancer awareness with “Think Pink,” a crowd of more than 2,200 packed the arena and provided an atmosphere rarely seen outside of Provo, Utah, and Honolulu.
The two teams did little to disappoint the raucous crowd. Like two prizefighters each set was a back and forth affair with UC Irvine ultimately prevailing in five games.
While All-MPSF senior setter Michael Saeta led the way with his quiet leadership and all-around stellar play, it was All-American outside hitter Tamir Hershko who brought the passion to the court as he finished the night with 23 kills, hitting at a .438 clip.
“To be able to play in front of this many people… it’s an opportunity I can’t even speak of. This is our passion, we put all of our heart and effort into it. To have it here, in Southern California,” Saeta said. “It’s a good feeling, I love it.”
UC Irvine coach David Kniffin echoed this sentiment saying he’s never seen an environment like this in all his years at the school.
“What a crowd tonight”, Kniffin said. “What a fantastic match.”
It was the most people UC Irvine had at home match this season by almost 800 people. The match also was the third time in the Anteaters’ last four home matches they surpassed 1,000 people in attendance.
The record-setting crowd will bolster UC Irvine in the attendance rankings after it started the weekend eighth in the nation with a 754 home attendance average.
For a sport that has struggled to captivate the country, this night could be a stepping stone towards growing the game.
“I just feel like volleyball as a whole, especially on the men’s side, we definitely need to make more serves and just go for balls because I feel like some teams just don’t go. As a whole, everyone needs to have big energy.” UCLA opposite Christian Hessenauer said.
On this night, the effort and energy provided by these two volleyball behemoths was unquestioned.
For every Hershko kill, there was an answer from Hessenauer. For every Saeta powerful serve, it was reciprocated by the Bruins.
This battle did nothing to disappoint the huge crowd who left both excited and exhausted from the action. And as the sport continues to grow and evolve, one can only hope that more matches like this will be played out in front of similar large, boisterous fan bases.
Brandon Johnson is a special contributor for Off the Block. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of Off the Block.