Branden Yu | Off the Block special contributor
STANFORD, California — The conference matchup between No. 5/5 UC Irvine and No. 9 Stanford on Friday in the Maples Pavilion involved a stroll down memory lane for both parties.
For Stanford, the trip was one of nostalgia, as the Cardinal celebrated how the 2017 season marked the 20th anniversary of the program’s first NCAA title.
The stroll for UCI, however, may not have been as pleasant. Maples Pavilion is the site where the Anteaters’ national championship aspirations came to an end in 2014 and 2015.
But as UCI senior setter Michael Saeta will tell you, it’s a new season, a new team and a new opportunity to win.
That much has been evident on the season thus far, where the Anteaters (17-6 overall, 11-5 MPSF) have notched a litany of quality wins, most notably against a No. 1/1 Ohio State team that had won its last 42 matches. Against No. 9 Stanford, UCI added to their own five-match win streak by toppling the Cardinal (11-11, 6-9 MPSF) in a four-game outing.
“We’re gearing up for the playoffs, I’m excited, I think that’s when Irvine volleyball is at its best, and I think a lot of teams in the MPSF don’t want to play right now because we’re pretty good,” Saeta said.
Saeta’s statement has a definitively more confident tone than it did at this point in the season last year, where the Anteaters were struggling to simply secure a berth into the MPSF Tournament.
“Something we talked about a lot last year was this idea of [belief in the unseen], and until you beat a top team, I don’t know that some of these kids believe they can,” coach David Kniffin said. “For us to go through and [have] beaten some iconic programs at the top of our league… that starts to demonstrate that we can play, we’re relevant in this conversation.
“It gives us a window to have a little more confidence at this point in the season.”
The effects of that newfound confidence, coupled with a healthy roster, was in full effect Friday.
Senior Thomas Hodges, who has gradually become UCI’s go-to player, once again paced the Anteaters with a match-high 18 kills at a .333 clip, alongside five digs and two blocks. Sophomore Aaron Koubi, who was plagued by injury issues in the past, closely followed with 16 kills, seven digs and ac ace.
Together, the two combined for more than half of UCI’s total kills (57), which Saeta quarterbacked to an efficient .352 hitting percentage.
Despite the win, the Anteaters still had notable errors that the Cardinal were able to capitalize on. After leading 18-12 in the first set, the Anteaters allowed the Cardinal to rally off a 7-2 run to close the deficit to within one before taking the game. And in the third set, the Anteaters were unable to take the lead after falling behind 1-4 at the start.
“I would’ve loved obviously to get a sweep and play our best volleyball, but sometimes you gotta learn to pull out after things aren’t going your way, and so that’s an experience that we got tonight that I think we can take with us [to playoffs],” Saeta said.
However, there were still moments of the game that boded well for UCI’s success in the postseason. In the second set, the Anteaters demonstrated their resilience by staving off five-set points to take the 2-0 lead. And after conceding the third set, the Anteaters collected themselves and held the Cardinal to a match-low zero attack percentage in the fourth set to clinch the win.
A key attribute of all of UCI’s past championships teams has been their mental fortitude, their ability to adhere to their philosophy of taking each game point-by-point. For Saeta, who hates losing more than he likes winning, the fact that the Anteaters have won all seven of their five-set matches this season gives him confidence that 2027 may mark the 10-year anniversary of UCI’s fifth national title.
“I’m still waiting on that game where I enjoy winning more than losing, and I think it might be the national championship this year,” Saeta said.
Moreover, the Anteaters’ drive to capture a national championship has not only manifested through their accolades on the court, but on the sidelines as well.
Kniffin, who traditionally wears sweats, has returned to donning more formal attire come game time, a look he has not sported since the ‘Eaters last captured the championship in 2013. Kniffin, however, notes the parallel is purely coincidental.
“I couldn’t find my sweats on a game day, and then I dressed up and a bunch of my bosses told me they preferred that I dress up, so I’m gonna keep dressing up because you know, I like to make my bosses happy,” Kniffin said.
Intentional or not, Kniffin’s new wardrobe change is a fitting one. After all, the Anteaters are looking to return to championship form.
“I’m as comfortable [dressing up] as I am in sweats,” Kniffin said. “I figure I can call timeouts in both.”