SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The University of California San Diego fought back from two sets down and actually earned a match point in the decisive fifth at 14-13, but finally succumbed to No. 13 host UC Santa Barbara in the first match in Big West Conference Men's Volleyball history at Rob Gym on Friday night. Set scores were 25-20, 30-28, 28-30, 16-25 and 20-18, as three of the five went to extra points.
This is the inaugural season of the Big West Conference sponsoring the sport of men's volleyball, with six teams in the league, including UC San Diego as an associate member. Friday's tilt was the first match on the league slate, with No. 3 Hawai'i defeating No. 5 UC Irvine 3-1 in Honolulu, Hawaii, later at night. The Tritons fall to 8-7 overall and 0-1 in the Big West, with the Gauchos evening their overall mark at 5-5 with a perfect 1-0 start to league play.
"Tonight's match with UCSB was historic in many ways, as we are the first UCSD team to compete in a Big West match, and it was the first Big West Conference Men's Volleyball match," said UC San Diego head coach Kevin Ring. "All season long, we've taken pride in representing not only UCSD but the Big West Conference. Tonight was our opportunity to take an early-season lead in the conference standings. We came up short but we showed a great deal of heart and grit in our performance."
Senior opposite hitter Tanner Syftestad finished with his fifth career double-double and fourth this season, getting up to 20 kills with a career-best 15 digs. Freshman Wyatt Harrison joined him in double-figure kills with 11, while sophomore libero Ryan Lew got his hands to 11 digs. Syftestad also served two of six Triton aces.
UC San Diego got solid contributions off the bench from sophomore setter Connor Walbrecht, redshirt freshman middle blocker Vlad Pesic and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Xander Jimenez. Walbrecht had a career night with 41 assists, three kills on five attempts, one ace, eight digs and six total blocks, including one solo. Pesic provided five kills and six blocks and an ace of his own. Jimenez had six kills, an ace, four digs and three blocks. Senior Bryan Zhu contributed nine kills and five blocks.
The match featured 47 tie scores and 14 lead changes, including match highs of 17 and five in the shorter, thrilling fifth. UCSB broke a 5-5 tie in the first set by scoring six of the next seven and taking a 10-6 lead that it would hold on to.
UCSD trailed 9-5 and 12-8 in the second, but a 4-0 run saw it grab a 17-15 advantage coming out of UCSB's first timeout. The Gauchos converted on their fifth set point as Randey DeWeese served an ace. The Tritons held one set point at 26-25.
The visitors called for time down 7-3 early in the third after a pair of 3-0 mini-runs. Three straight Triton points closed the gap to 10-9 and forced the Gauchos into their first timeout. UCSD stared three match points in the face at 24-21, but got a kill from Zhu, a combination block from Walbrecht and Zhu, and a UCSB attack error for new life at 24-24. The Gauchos served once more for the match at 25-24, but Roy McFarland's attempt was awry. Then on a fourth set point, UCSD got a Corey Chavers attack error to pull a game back. A DeWeese service error had broken a 28-28 tie.
From Pesic's solo denial for openers on Connor Drake, the fourth was all UC San Diego, as it trotted out to a 7-4 lead at the first Gaucho timeout. Three straight points, punctuated by Pesic's ace, forced the second UCSB timeout at 17-10, and following a 5-0 run which included both Syftestad aces, it was a 22-11 bulge. Pesic started it, and he also ended, with his kill sending the teams to the fifth.
UC San Diego hit the side change ahead 8-7 thanks to a triple block by Jimenez, Pesic and Walbrecht. At 13-13, Harrison's kill gave the Tritons their one and only match point, but Drake turned them away with a kill. An attack error created the first of five match points in the other direction, with kills by Chavers and Keenan Sanders finally ending the high drama. Sanders led all players with his 21 kills.
""UCSB got off to a strong start offensively as they hit .419 in Set 1, while we only managed to hit .167 and then .179 in Set 2," continued Ring. "Even though we lost Set 2, we started pressuring UCSB with improved blocking as we had 6.5 stuff blocks in Set 2 and another four in Set 3 to hold UCSB to hitting efficiencies of .140 and .073 in Sets 2 and 3. We fought off four match points in the third set. We kept the momentum into Set 4 and picked up our offense as we hit .333.
"Connor Walbrecht, Vlad Pesic and Xander Jimenez helped provide a spark as they each came off the bench and played significant portions of the match. I thought our passing really held up well tonight against UCSB's strong serving.
"The fifth set went back and forth. We had one serve for the match and then fought off four UCSB match points before succumbing in the end. Overall, our inconsistent offensive production and our inability to consistently hit our serving targets were factors in the loss."
UC San Diego now awaits its Big West home opener, as it turns around and welcomes in UC Santa Barbara to complete their home-and-home series inside RIMAC Arena on North Campus in La Jolla next Friday, March 2. First serve is set for 7 p.m.
"We'll get another shot at UCSB in one week," concluded Ring. "We'll be ready."
Triton Notes: Tanner Syftestad's 20 kills give him 1105 for his career, fifth in program history ... Syftestad's 49 attacks give him 2704 for his career, also fifth all-time ... With two more aces, Syftestad has 81 as a Triton, up from fourth to third all-time ahead of Jim Waller (80 from 2001-04) ... Tonight marked Syftestad's 51st career match in double-figure kills, including 15 with 20-plus and 14 of 15 thus far in 2018 ... Milosh Stojcic's five assists give him 2327 for his four-year career, fifth all-time ... It was the first time that Stojcic didn't hit double digits in assists since he had two on March 5, 2016, off the bench against UC Irvine, and the first time with less than 10 in a starting role since he had eight at home against Stanford on Feb. 25, 2016 ... All of Connor Walbrecht's numbers were career highs, matching his best of one ace and one solo block, with the three kills the first three of his college career.