The UC Irvine men's volleyball season is officially open for business. But the message sent most clearly during the Anteaters' 25-21, 25-13, 25-15, road drubbing of defending NAIA champion Concordia on Friday had to do with closing time.
The Anteaters, who have won the last two NCAA titles, played their original seven starters throughout, effectively stepping on the throat of the overmatched Eagles.
"Last year [a five-set win for UCI, which claimed the first two games against Concordia but couldn't finish off the sweep], we counted this match as an exhibition, so we were experimenting with some things," UCI Coach David Kniffin said. "This year, this is a real match and it goes on our record and we wanted to come out and see what we could do."
After an obviously pumped-up Concordia squad took a 5-1 lead and later pulled even at 17-17 in the first set, the Anteaters, who swept both their matches at last season's Final Four, did just about anything they wanted.
Junior opposite Zack La Cavera, who led all players with 15 kills on 25 swings for a .520 hitting percentage, scored the final two points of the first set on kills.
La Cavera, who has added an array of shots to his high-flying full swing from the pin, had nine kills in the second set, while adding one block assist and one ace serve. His four block assists matched senior All-American middle blocker Collin Mehring for team-high honors.
"Zack has really diversified his game, as has [senior outside hitter] Jeremy Dejno," Kniffin said. "You watch Dejno [who had nine kills on 16 swings with only one error for a .500 hitting percentage] and he's not just hitting the ball as hard as he can, but he's also placing it at times. It's a nice improvement."
It was the first competition for UCI since last year's NCAA final against BYU, as the Anteaters chose to rest and recharge rather than schedule a handful of fall scrimmages, as is their norm.
"I think it took us a little while to settle in, but once we did, I saw a lot of confident players on the court," Kniffin said. "I've been asked if our gym has been stale this fall and we have a pretty competitive gym. Having these guys come into this competition pretty hungry was a healthy thing for us."
Senior middle Scott Kevorken had eight kills on 12 swings (.583), and added two block assists.
Junior Travis Woloson also had eight kills, while matching Dejno and La Cavera with five digs.
Junior All-American libero Michael Brinkley had seven digs to lead all players, while freshman setter Michael Saeta delivered 43 assists to go with his two kills and two block assists.
UCI hit .466 as a team, while Concordia finished at .176.
Senior outside hitter Connor Hughes, a preseason All-American who was the MVP of the NCAA Championship tournament last season, and 6-foot-9 sophomore outside hitter Kyle Russell watched from the stands, while senior setter Daniel Stork, recovering from offseason hip surgery, did not play.
"We need to test more of our personnel," Kniffin said. "We rode the seven we started the whole time. I need to see what people on the squad can do. I just didn't feel like making subs. I wanted to go a full match."
UCI returns to action Saturday with a pair of matches against foes from Canada: the University of British Columbia (2 p.m.) and Red Deer (5 p.m.).
"We'll see if we can come back maybe just slightly more polished," Kniffin said.