PHOENIX - On a night that saw senior setter Milosh Stojcic achieve a rare milestone, the University of California San Diego men's volleyball team was bested by No. 11 Grand Canyon University, 3-1, in non-conference action Friday at Antelope Gymnasium. Set scores were 25-22, 22-25, 25-17 and 25-22.
With the loss, UC San Diego dropped to 5-2 overall. Grand Canyon improved to 7-2. It was a third consecutive win in the series for the Lopes, who are first-year members of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which the Tritons left after their 25th season in 2017 to join the newly-formed Big West Conference.
It was a first true road match of 2018 for UC San Diego, in front of a rowdy crowd of 1016.
Stojcic finished with 37 assists, with the sixth of those coming in the first set on a kill by fellow senior Tanner Syftestad to close UC San Diego to within one at 10-9. That assist marked the 2000th of his four-year career. The Redondo Beach product is just the sixth player in program history to achieve the feat. Stojcic in fact put together his fourth collegiate double-double and first this year, adding a team-best 10 digs.
"Congratulations to Milosh on getting to 2000 assists for his career," said head coach Kevin Ring. "That is quite an accomplishment and honor. It goes to show that you've done something well, and done it for quite some time."
Syftestad provided 21 kills to lead all players, on .415 hitting (21-4-41), to keep pace with his nation-leading, five-plus-kills-per-set average. He served a pair of aces.
UC San Diego's first three points of the opening frame all came via Bryan Zhu (San Diego/Rancho Bernardo HS) kills from Stojcic sets. The first lead by either team of more than a single point was at 8-6 in favor of the home side, but the Tritons quickly tied it on a strong Nathan Thalken kill and an Antelope attack error. A triple block by Caleb Blazer, Will Schwob and Cody Williams gave GCU another two-point edge at 10-8. Shalev Saada's ace took the teams to the media timeout with UCSD down 15-13.
Saada came out of that break to serve another ace as the Lopes stretched it to a 5-0 run to go up 18-13. The Tritons responded with the next four, but could not pull even.
Back-to-back Williams kills got the Lopes out to an early 2-0 lead in the second, but that was answered straight away by a combo block from Zhu and senior tri-captain Luke La Mont on Williams, and a La Mont ace. The Tritons produced a run of three straight points for an 8-5 advantage, the last two coming through a stuff block by Stojcic and senior middle Alec Flowers, followed by their first triple by Flowers, La Mont and Stojcic. Still up by three at 11-8 after a big kill by Syftestad, UCSD surrendered the next four points.
The Tritons regained and maintained a slim edge for a while until the Lopes finally pulled back even. Freshman Wyatt Harrison's diving dig at the back of the court kept a play alive for Syftestad's kill and another lead at 20-19. Harrison then partnered with Zhu on a block of Williams, and GCU called its first timeout, trailing 21-19.
At 23-22, UC San Diego benefitted from another big defensive play as sophomore libero Ryan Lew dug out the overpass and Syftestad ultimately put down his match-best 14th kill to get the visitors to set point. Flowers' solo stuff evened the contest.
UC San Diego parlayed that momentum into a 3-1 start to the third, but GCU notched the next five, punctuated by another triple block by Schwob, Ashton King and Cullen Mosher. An Alex Shmelev service error stopped the bleeding. At 8-4, however, Ring called for time.
UCSD got a big block by Flowers and Stojcic for 10-7 and a powerful kill in the middle from Flowers on the quick set by Stojcic for 11-8, but couldn't make a significant dent in the deficit, and had to use its second timeout at 17-11. GCU went on to take it.
A sliding kill by Drew Sloane broke a 9-9 tie in the fourth before a 4-0 run by the Lopes necessitated the Tritons' first timeout, suddenly trailing by three at 13-10. Another three-point stretch made it 18-14 at UCSD's second timeout, and though the visitors got back to within two on five occasions, Grand Canyon was able to close them out.
"GCU is a top-15-ranked team," added Ring. "We came into their gym, a real exuberant environment with a good crowd, and there was great energy. I felt like we had our moments and played well in spurts, but just didn't string enough good plays together to turn the tide. In three of the sets, the score was 25-22, and we lost two of those. We've got to be in the fight, and find ways to win our fair share of those close sets.
"I was definitely a little disappointed after winning the second set like we did, that we unfortunately got off to a really poor start in the third. That took the wind out of our sails, and put them right back in the driver's seat. They closed out set three pretty convincingly, and stayed the aggressors in set four. Although we had little runs, we were just never able to catch them and turn that tide.
"We felt we left some plays on the table that could have made the difference for us. For sure (GCU is) a good team, and they played well tonight. Credit Grand Canyon on the victory, but talking about our side of the net, we feel like we have another level, and another gear that we can get to. It's going to be real important, especially as we get into our non-conference matches coming up, and certainly into Big West Conference play, to find that level."
GCU had four players in double-figure kills in Schwob (13), Mosher (12), King (11) and Williams (11). Schwob completed his double-double with a match-high 12 digs.
Thalken and Zhu added six kills apiece for the Tritons, while La Mont had five. Flowers got to a match-best six total blocks.
UC San Diego remains in Phoenix, Ariz., and takes on Ottawa University Arizona for the very first time on Saturday, Jan. 27, again at GCU's Antelope Gymnasium. First serve is set for 1 p.m. PT (2 p.m. MT). Admission is free, with only live stats available.
Triton Notes: GCU inches ahead in the all-time series, 4-3, including 2-1 in Phoenix ... GCU had also won the prior two meetings, in La Jolla in 2016 and 2017 ... Tanner Syftestad's 21 kills give him 947 for his career, moving him from 10th to ninth all-time at UC San Diego, as he vies to become just the sixth Triton men's volleyball player to reach the 1000-kill milestone ... Syftestad's 41 attacks give him 2346 for his career, moving him from eighth to seventh all-time ahead of Zack Hite's (1998-01) 2330 ... Syftestad's two aces give him 68, moving him from seventh to sixth in the record book, over Kurt Seckington (1996-99) ... Syftestad has 43 career matches in double-figure kills, now with 11 of the 20-plus variety, including four in 2018 and two in a row ... Milosh Stojcic's 37 assists give him 2031 for his four-year career, sixth all-time ... Stojcic and Syftestad have accounted for the Tritons' two double-doubles in 2018, in back-to-back matches ... With two more solo blocks, Alec Flowers continues to lead the team in that category, now with seven of the Tritons' 11.