LOS ANGELES - The University of California San Diego men's volleyball team got past McKendree University, 3-2, in a thriller to open the 2018 season at UCLA's John Wooden Center on Friday evening. Game scores were 25-22, 22-25, 29-27, 21-25 and 15-13.
The non-conference match kicked off the two-day, four-team Wooden Classic Tournament.
Friday's opener also marked a first for UC San Diego Athletics. When the Big West Conference unveiled on May 31, 2016, that it was adding men's volleyball as the league's 18th sponsored sport beginning in 2018, the Tritons were announced as an associate member, joining five other natural Big West institutions in moving over from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. This past Nov. 27, UC San Diego was invited into the Big West as a full member. On Friday, the men's volleyball squad was the department's first to engage in competition as a Big West team.
McKendree (0-2), out of Lebanon, Ill., is a fellow member of the NCAA Division II, out of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA). The sides will meet again in Illinois on Feb. 16.
Senior opposite and tri-captain Tanner Syftestad pounded out 27 kills on .365 (27-8-52) hitting to lead the way for the Tritons. He added five digs, five blocks, two aces and two assists. Senior setter Milosh Stojcic finished with 46 assists, six digs, two kills, two blocks and an ace.
"It was exciting to open the season with a five-set victory," said Kevin Ring, who presided over his 13th season opener at the Triton helm. "I'm very pleased with the outcome. I felt like we did a lot of really good things throughout the match. I certainly see areas of our game that we want to improve upon, which is exactly what we're trying to do so early in the season."
Wyatt Harrison, a true freshman from Kilauea, Hawaii, started at outside hitter and in his debut, put down back-to-back kills to break a 13-13 tie in the fifth and deciding set. That gave him 10 kills on the night. Another true freshman, Bryce Curtis, had entered just moments earlier and served a huge ace for a 13-11 edge.
"We served really well tonight in the sense that we kept our service errors down. We also wanted to be able to get back and serve some tough balls."
UC San Diego surrendered the first two points of the fifth set, with Ring having to call his first timeout trailing 6-3. McKendree got to the side change up 8-6. A four-point run around a Bearcat timeout pushed the Tritons ahead, 11-9, but it soon became 11-11. Even after Curtis' big ace, McKendree levelled matters one final time on a pair of kills, before Harrison converted on sets, interestingly enough, or strategically, by sophomore Connor Walbrecht and redshirt junior Luke McDonald.
"In the fifth set, having Luke McDonald and Connor Walbrecht come in kind of running a 6-2 offense, the plays that they made," explained Ring. "Being in a tight situation like that, coming in off the bench in critical moments and make the plays they did. I'm real excited and happy for them and the team's performance."
Syftestad totaled 6.5 points from four kills, two service aces and a block assist in the opening stanza.
Knotted at 16-16 in the second set, redshirt senior middle blocker Bryan Zhu (San Diego/Rancho Bernardo HS) had a kill and combined with Syftestad on a stuff to put the Tritons ahead, but they were unable to hold on as McKendree evened the match.
The Tritons built a seemingly-commanding 15-10 lead in the third before six straight points, the last two via Aaron Plaisted aces, moved the Bearcats ahead. From there, the frame featured 12 more tie scores. UCSD fended off a pair of set points, before McKendree did the same. Finally on the third Triton set point, attained thanks to an 11th Syftestad kill in that game alone, Zhu and junior Nathan Thalken turned away Nolan Rueter's attack for the win.
The fourth set was the only one without a single lead change or tie score, as McKendree tallied the first four points and never looked back. Successive stuff blocks by Stojcic and junior middle Drew Sloane made for a one-point margin at 10-9, but the Bearcats maintained their edge and later scored four in a row for 17-12.
"This was a hard-fought battle tonight," said Ring. "To be able to come back and win it, especially down in the fifth set, you have that feather in your cap. You can always come back to that moment. Maybe we weren't playing our best, but we found ways to grit it out, tough it out and make some big plays. It was a great team victory. We had quite a few guys contribute in different ways."
Thalken collected a career- and match-high 11 digs, to go along with five kills and two total blocks, including the Tritons' lone solo one of the match. Zhu had eight kills and five blocks, with Sloane adding four denials. The hitting efficiency was relatively even, with UCSD at .258 (56-24-124) to .265 (69-30-147) for McKendree.
The Bearcats put four in double-figure kills in Rueter (16), Patrick Ross (16), Brendan Schmidt (12) and Ethan Carroll (11). Pasquale Fiduccia had 59 assists.
In addition to Curtis and Harrison, a third true freshman made his college debut in libero Thomas DeStefano, entering off the bench in the third and getting to six digs.
"Looking at the play of Tanner Syftestad, it was a big night for him," concluded Ring. "He also came up with two aces on just three errors. Freshman Wyatt Harrison provided some pretty steady play with 10 kills on the night, and was a solid passer for us. I was definitely pleased with his performance."
UC San Diego remains in Los Angeles to conclude the Wooden Classic Tournament against another Division II foe in King University of Bristol, Tenn., on Saturday, Jan. 6. First serve is again set for 5 p.m. inside the John Wooden Center on the Westwood campus of UCLA. The fourth-ranked host Bruins, who swept King on Friday, will take on McKendree at 7:30 p.m. Admission into both matches is free of charge.
Triton Notes: UC San Diego is 5-8 in season openers under Kevin Ring ... The Tritons had last won their 2016 opener, 3-0 at home over Charleston on Jan. 8 ... UCSD last won its opener away from home on Jan. 4, 2013, another five-set, neutral-site tournament affair over Lewis at the Asics Invitational in Santa Barbara ... Friday's contest marked the first all-time meeting between the Tritons and McKendree ... Tanner Syftestad fell four kills shy of equaling his career best, and now has 38 matches in double-digit kills as a Triton, and eight with 20 or more ... Syftestad's 27 kills give him 850 for his career, with his two aces moving him from a tie for 11th, to sole possession of ninth on the all-time UCSD chart, now with 60.