UCI Men’s Volleyball Outlasts USC 3-2 in Top 10 Battle

Photo provided by UCI Athletics

The No. 7 ranked UCI Men’s Volleyball team (4-0) defeated No. 10 ranked USC (4-2) in a five-set thriller at the Bren Events Center on Wednesday, Jan. 18. 

USC started with a quick 2-0 lead due to kills from freshman outside hitter Dillon Klein and graduate outside hitter Kevin Kobrine. The two sides then went on back-to-back rallies. The first rally went to the Trojans with a soft tap by senior middle blocker/opposite Lucas Frassrand. The second rally went the Anteater’s way with a great dig from senior libero Cole Power, which led to a kill by junior outside hitter Francesco Sani. 

Redshirt junior outside hitter Cole Gillis got a point on the board with a kill, followed by an ace by Sani to give UCI the lead. The two teams swapped points in the first set until USC went on a run through service errors from UCI. Gillis then stopped the Anteater cold stretch with a cross-court kill. 

UCI roared back with two straight blocks. The first one came from Sani, and the second was a double block by freshman opposite William D’Arcy and redshirt junior outside hitter Doug Dahm. The score went from 18-17 to 24-19 with the Anteaters enjoying a run of good plays. Then, at the set point, USC had trouble controlling the UCI strike, hitting it out for the UCI set win, 25-22.

The second set started off with the Trojans gaining a quick lead. Redshirt junior outside hitter/opposite Simon Gallas hit an ace followed by a kill from Kobrine. However, this was a game of runs and UCI was up next. Back-to-back cross-court kills by Gillis and Sani gave the ‘Eaters a lead. 

Power then pulled off another amazing dig, but the rally went the way of USC with a kill by Gallas. Kobrine then recorded two straight kills to tie things up at 8-8. The second set was the most competitive, as neither team was able to get a clear edge. With the score tied at 13-13, USC junior middle blocker Kyle Paulson got back-to-back kills, giving the Trojans the lead.

Luckily for the Anteaters, Sani and Gillis came to the rescue again with powerful kills to quickly answer back. Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Conner Dahm hit an ace to give UCI a 20-18 lead. The back and forth continued until the score was tied 25-25. Sani hit one wide, and the chaotic last point started with a great dig by Power; however, it went the way of USC with a kill by Klein. USC won set two 27-25.

The close matchup didn’t let up in the third set, with the teams trading back-to-back points yet again. UCI sophomore outside hitter Hilir Henno got the loud Bren Events Center even more excited with an ace followed by a kiss to the USC bench. Sani stayed electric in the third set with more kills, as he recorded 23 total in the match. Along with a block from Henno, the Anteaters tied up the score at 8-8.

Gallas and Paulson responded with a double block, but due to a net serve and Sani kill, the score was then tied up at 10-10. It was a back-and-forth battle between the two Southern California schools until after the media timeout at 15-14, when Sani took over once again and bombed two serves over the tape, giving ease to the Anteater side, 17-14. 

However, the Trojans did not slow down after their own timeout. After a series of scrappy defensive plays, USC transitioned into a lead of their own, forcing a UCI timeout at 18-17. The set carried on with alternating blows, pressuring each team to keep making plays. Ultimately, the Trojans took advantage due to crucial offensive errors by Irvine, giving them the go to finish off the set with a sneaky setter dump. Set three ended with a close 25-23 in favor of the Trojans. 

Set number four started off hot with two quick serves from Henno and a bounce from Dahm, producing a 3-0 lead. USC hopped back on trail but could not keep a solid rhythm as they kept leading into unforced errors. The score quickly became 9-4 and after a Trojan timeout, UCI kept the pace and slowed down their opponents with multiple key defensive plays. 

It seemed like a done deal for Irvine in the fourth set, however, once again, USC fought back and got themselves back into the fray, making it 14-12. The man of the hour, Sani, returned to the service line and got his team back in control, firing another duo of serves into the laps of the USC backline. With the advantage back to Irvine, USC lost its rhythm and could not recover. Sani finished the fourth with a swing from the right side, ending it at 25-20. 

The tie breaker began, and it was all do or die in the fifth and final set. USC came out early with a lead of 2-0, due to two costly mistakes on the Irvine side. Now playing catch up, UCI needed to make some extraordinary plays to retain the advantage in a must-win game. Henno used his finesse to ensure a lead for his boys. After a couple digs and two swings slicing the line from Henno, the momentum shifted back to UCI. Irvine junior middle blocker Connor Campbell initiated the switch at point eight after a thunderous bounce off the teraflex, giving the Anteaters an 8-6 lead. 

Irvine quickly said goodnight as they dominated the side switch. USC called a timeout at 13-9 in hopes of slowing down their rivals. The Trojans scored a couple points off the break, but it was Sani who finished his 23-kill match with a tool off the hands, completing the 3-2 win, 15-11. 

The man of the match, Sani, was proud of the way his teammates performed to keep their undefeated streak alive early this season.

“We battled early in the first set and we overthought, and they took the first,” Sani said. “We knew we had to play Irvine ball and we did so— very proud of the boys tonight.” 

The UCI Men’s Volleyball team will return to the Bren Events Center on Friday, Jan. 20 to host their cross-town rival, the Concordia University Irvine Eagles, at 7 p.m. 

Brian Garcia is a Sports Staff Writer for the 2023 winter quarter. He can be reached at briang7@uci.edu

Miguel Rodriguez is a Sports Staff Writer for the 2023 winter quarter. He can be reached at miguer9@uci.edu.