Brendan Yu | Senior Reporter
In a battle where both the UC Irvine and Pepperdine refused to show any quit and repeatedly erased deficit after deficit against one another, it seemed only fitting that the game would be decided in a decisive fifth game.
At least, that’s what should have happened, with Pepperdine, down 2-1, up 24-19 in the fourth and serving for the game. But in a match already full of improbable runs, the Eaters responded with the most improbable run of all, erasing five straight game-points to clinch the game and close out the Waves 25-23, 22-25, 26-24, 28-26 at the Bren Events Center Sunday evening.
For the ‘Eaters, the win hinged on their ability to stand by the program’s core tenet of taking each game point-by-point.
“That’s something that lots of teams talk about, being in the moment and playing just one point at a time,” Kniffin said. “But I think on some level, you really have to live it a few times to believe it. As a coach, most of us have lived it, this iteration of this men’s volleyball haven’t really lived a moment like that yet.
“But I think now that we lived it, now we have that experience, maybe we believe in it a little bit more than we did before we came into this tonight.”
UC Irvine struggled to stand by their point-by-point philosophy earlier in the season, when they dropped a 21-16 lead in an upset loss to Stanford. That wasn’t the case on Sunday, as the ‘Eaters remained steadfast despite repeatedly seeing large leads turn into large deficits.
“We definitely talked about the frustration that came with that Stanford loss and being up big, and then them coming back,” said sophomore outside hitter Joel Schneidmiller. “We definitely visited that, it’s probably the biggest thing we’ve covered since then.
“It’s just staying point-to-point and staying together; especially if there’s a bad play, [it’s] not one guy just going off by himself, we’re all coming in to meet in the middle and just reset and say next point.”
Perhap no ‘Eater better encapsulated this philosophy than Schneidmiller himself, as he rose to the pressure of unloading six tough, but inbound, jump serves while UC Irvine was down 24-19 in the fourth game. Prior to his service run, Schneidmiller had a match-worst 0.64 serve percentage and a match-high seven service errors, three more than any other player.
“I think Joel is pretty secure in who he is, and I think that’s something that our team does pretty well. We acknowledge where we are strong, and we acknowledge where we’re weak, we acknowledge where we have work to do,” said head coach David Kniffin. “I think when you can do that, and be honest about your own game, and kind of play within your ability, you get moments like Joel had tonight.
“He didn’t do anything spectacular, he was just Joel, which is already very impressive, but he didn’t press to try to do more than he needed to do. Those weren’t the best serves he ever hit, he played in system with the rest of our block defense and it’s not Joel at the service line versus Pepperdine, it’s Joel at the service line with front row blockers and back row defenders, against six guys on the other side of the net. That, I think, is pretty cool.”
For UC Irvine, the turning point came in third and fourth games, when the ‘Eater block came alive for 11 total blocks. The ‘Eaters only registered one block in the first two games. UC Irvine out-blocked Pepperdine 12.0 to 6.5, and outgunned the Waves from the service line seven aces to two.
The ‘Eaters had a balanced offensive showing, with Schneidmiller, Aaron Koubi, and Karl Apfelbach each posting a team-best 13 kills. Scott Stadick had a match-high four blocks and added 10 kills on an efficient .444 hitting percentage.
Pepperdine was led by senior outside attacker David Wieczorek, who pounded away a match-high 22 kills. Fellow senior outside Kaleb Denmark added 13 kills while Michael Wexter chipped in nine kills and a match-high 13 digs.
In game one, the ‘Eaters took an early 6-2 lead and maintained that four-point cushion until Pepperdine evened the game at 14, after a 4-0 run out of a timeout. From then on, the two continued trading points with neither leading by more than one until Apfelbach put UCI up 23-21 with two consecutive aces. A kill by Apfelbach gave UC Irvine match-point and Wilmot would put it away after siding out to close the game.
UC Irvine jumped out to a 8-2 lead in game two, but the Waves gradually chipped away at the lead, eventually knotting the game at 18-all. The Waves took the lead on a triple block at 20-19 and soon claimed the game off a Denmark kill.
Much like game two, UC Irvine secured an early lead at 9-4, but this time it was quickly erased by the Waves who went off on a 10-0 run that featured five kills by Wieczorek to go up 14-9. The freshman tandem of Brian Garcia and Alexandre Nsakanda injected new life for the ‘Eaters off the bench, with Garcia finding Schneidmiller for a kill and Nsakanda teaming with Apfelbach and Stadick on back to back blocks to end the scoring drought.
“It’s good to just get a different look,” Schneidmiller said. “Bigger setter, high jumper on the opposite side, I think that helped a bit and they played well when they came in.”
While the ‘Eaters eventually broke even with the Waves at 17-all, they soon found their backs against the wall down 23-21. Pepperdine failed to close out the game however, committing a combined four service and attack errors to hand UC Irvine the game 26-24.
Down 19-24 in the final game, Stadick, named to the Off the Block Ryan Millar Award watch list, erased the first three game points with a kill and two blocks, and soon after tied the game off of yet another block against Wieczorek alongside Apfelbach. After taking turns siding-out, UC Irvine completed their come-from behind win with kills by Wilmot and Koubi.
Moving forward, the ‘Eaters will face Charleston and Grand Canyon In Phoenix this Friday, while Pepperdine hosts CSUN at home this Wednesday.