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UCI Men’s Volleyball Falls Short in Big West Title Game Against Hawai’i, 3-1

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No. 5 UCI Men’s Volleyball (18-11, 6-4) was defeated by No. 1 University of Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (28-2, 9-1) in the Big West Conference Championship match at the Bren Events Center in Irvine on Saturday, April 22.

The Bren Events Center was electric throughout the night as the ‘Eater faithfuls combated with a heavy Hawai’i crowd.

In the opening set, UCI got off to a blazing start as sophomore outside hitter Hilir Henno scored an ace, securing an early 6-3 lead. The Rainbow Warriors fought back, tying the game at 10-10 after an ace from junior outside hitter/opposite Spyros Chakas landed due to an unfortunate miscommunication from the Anteater defense. 

A 7-2 run from Hawai’i, capped off by an ace from junior outside hitter Keoni Thiim, ballooned into a 16-11 advantage and ignited the Warrior crowd.

The ‘Eaters responded with a passionate Henno kill through the heart of the Warriors’ defense, cutting the lead to 19-13. However, UCI was not quite able to position themselves to a victory in the first set. Hawai’i junior opposite Dimitrios Mouchlias crushed the Anteaters’ rally attempt with a kill over the top of the UCI defense, creating a commanding 22-13 lead for the Rainbow Warriors.

Hawai’i closed set 1 off an error from Anteater junior outside hitter Francesco Sani after a double block from junior middle blocker Guilherme Voss and Mouchlias.

UCI came out firing in set 2 with a thunderous kill from Henno as he sent a heatseeker through Rainbow Warrior’s territory. Hawai’i matched the intensity with a kill from Voss off an assist from senior setter Jakob Thelle. 

Although they got off to a quick start, a kill from Mouchlias put the ‘Eaters at an early 10-8 deficit, forcing a timeout.

UCI redshirt junior outside hitter Cole Gillis emerged as the second set hero, teaming with freshman middle blocker Maxim Grigoriev for the block on Hawai’i junior opposite/middle blocker Cole Hogland. Later in the second set, Gillis followed up his strong performance with his fourth kill of the set to give the Anteaters a 19-17 advantage.

Gillis continued his heroics with an ace piercing into Rainbow Warriors territory, furthering the lead to 22-19. A Henno kill was initially ruled out of bounds, but a successful challenge by UCI head coach David Kniffin awarded the Anteaters the point, taking a 24-21 lead.

An error on Hawai’i’s Chakas awarded the ‘Eaters a 25-21 second set victory, tying both teams at one set apiece. In what was great composure from UCI throughout the set, they looked to take a 2-1 match lead in the third.

The Rainbow Warriors opened set three on an 8-0 run, sprinting to an early advantage. Highlighted by a Chakas kill, the Anteaters were forced to call a timeout, silencing the ‘Eater faithful.

A Henno kill snuck through the backline of Hawai’i, cutting the deficit to 12-5. The ‘Eaters continued their comeback rally with a sliding save from Henno which was soon countered with a Mouchlias kill, furthering the Warrior lead to 14-5.

Though the Anteaters showed incredible grit, Hawai’i continued its dominance, mounting a 22-12 lead off an ace from Thiim. The Rainbow Warriors closed the set with a Chakas kill, taking a 25-13 set 3 victory and commanding 2-1 match lead. 

In set 4, Hawai’i jumped out to a 3-1 lead off of an ace from Thelle. Henno countered the quick Warrior start with back-to-back kills to tie the game at 4-4.

The Rainbow Warriors turned up its defensive intensity with an incredible triple block by junior outside hitter Chaz Galloway, Mouchlias and Hogland, taking a two-point lead. With the Hawai’i crowd tasting the potential of another Big West title, Mouchlias furthered the lead off a kill through the middle of the Anteater defense.

Both squads delivered a beautiful exchange of swings as Sani narrowly missed a kill to further the Hawai’i lead to 18-14. Sani and Grigoriev combined on a block to force an error on Chakas, cutting the lead to 18-16. 

Hilir Henno spearheaded the fearless effort of the ‘Eaters with back-to-back kills to bring his team to within one, forcing a Hawai’i timeout. Out of the timeout, Sani secured an ace to tie the game at 21-21, causing the UCI crowd to erupt.

Both teams exchanged serving errors, first from Sani and followed by Voss, keeping the game knotted up at 22-22. The Rainbow Warrior remained poised and scored back to back on kills from Mouchlias and Galloway, eventually securing a 24-22 match point advantage and forcing a UCI timeout.

Coming out of the timeout, Galloway and UCI redshirt junior setter Joe Karlous met at the net to compete for the kill. Galloway won the exchange, earning the kill to give Hawai’i the 25-22 set 4 victory and crown the Rainbow Warriors as the 2023 Big West Men’s Volleyball Champions. The Bren Events Center was in pandemonium as the Hawai’i crowd celebrated their team’s championship victory.

The Rainbow Warriors secured their third championship title, along with gaining an automatic bid into the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Tournament. Thelle was named the Big West Championship Most Valuable Player after the completion of the match.

“No,” Thelle said in response to winning the aforementioned award. “The MVP goes to the entire team!”

MVP Thelle finished the game with 47 assists and 2 kills, along with star teammate Mouchlias finishing with 17 kills on 31 swings.

The ‘Eaters were led by Henno, with 17 kills on 38 swings, and Sani, with 13 kills and two service aces.

In the post-game press conference, Coach Kniffin commented on the night’s loss. 

“My expectations for how we grow from tonight is that they’re mindful of how they speak to each other, how they talk to their parents, they’re mindful of how they talk to the media and take ownership,” Kniffin said. “Great competitors, they take ownership of themselves first and then they don’t worry about pointing around or what could have gone wrong or this call or this guy didn’t make a play. They look to themselves to improve first.”

This loss marks the end of the Anteaters’ 2023 season as they were not selected to participate in the upcoming 2023 National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship that  began at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on Sunday, April 30. 

Donnell Fuller is a Sports Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. He can be reached at ddfuller@uci.edu.