UC Irvine coach Ashlie Hain did not call it the biggest win in program history.
Not even after her Anteaters beat traditional women’s volleyball powerhouse Hawaii for the first time in 41 meetings. At the Stan Sheriff Center. With the Rainbow Wahine ranked No. 11. With her team trailing by two sets through two played.
Irvine ignored the increasingly desperate pleas of “Let’s Go Bows!” and pulled off the reverse sweep stunner, 11-25, 21-25, 25-23, 25-16, 15-13.
The 5,265 fans were finally stunned silent. Their team, which had lost only to now-No. 1 Baylor, on the road, had succumbed to a struggling program that could’ve been expected to fold after getting waxed in the first set.
On paper, it was hard to make sense of what they’d just witnessed, even with Jolie Rasmussen still out injured and Brooke Van Sickle apparently ailing midway through the match. But it became increasingly understandable, perhaps inevitable, seeing the energy with which the visiting Anteaters played and that which UH lacked.
“For me it’s about just growth and I’m just proud of this team for what they did tonight,” said Hain, a former UCI setter. “It wasn’t necessarily the win over Hawaii. It was a win over a great team at their place. And I’m just proud of this team for all they’ve been through. To pull out that win means a lot, and it’s not just about beating Hawaii and whatever they are, the No. 11 team in the country. It’s what they’ve overcome the last five weeks.”
Irvine (4-12, 1-3 Big West) had lost its last four matches, including all three of its conference matches last week, winning in four. It had won just 14 sets all season and dropped 40. Forty-two, if you include the first two the Wahine took on Friday night.
UC Irvine pulls off the reverse sweep at the Stan Sheriff Center for its first win over #HawaiiWVB in 41 all-time matches.
11-25, 21-25, 25-23, 25-16, 15-13 pic.twitter.com/2TNmRlYjo9
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) October 5, 2019
“We just decided we have nothing to lose and just go for everything. Just give it our all,” said Irvine’s 6-foot-3 freshman middle/hitter Onye Ofoegbu, who put down the match-winning kill among her 13. “Because this is what we all want and we decided let’s go as a team and let’s get it.”
UH (12-2, 2-1) had struggled to cleanly put away its conference foes at Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge last week. This time, at home, they paid for allowing a team to hang around.
Things turned in the Anteaters’ favor late in the second, when UH labored to win that frame. They eked out the third and won the fourth convincingly, shouting at each other on big points, of which there were many.
Just when it looked like things swung back UH’s way at the start of the fifth, came a critical series of events — events decided on the replay monitor courtside. After it appeared the Wahine had taken a 2-0 lead, Hain challenged that UH had committed four touches on the second point, and won it, to make it 1-1. The crowd, incensed, raised their chants to the loudest of the night in support of their team.
Then, a ball was shanked toward the Anteater bench, and near the sideline table. But a scrambling Anteater collided with a Spectrum cameraman sitting next to the UCI bench. UCI challenged for interference and, in a huge call, was granted a replay of the point.
UCI did not waste the extra chance. Ofoegbu put down a kill and Abby Marjama followed with an ace to go up 3-1. The Anteaters took leads of 7-2 and 8-3 before UH rallied to 12-12 on Norene Iosia’s serve.
There were several more replays in the stilted fifth frame.
“We visualized if we lost the point (challenge) or got the point, we decided what we were going to do in either situation, and we executed what we visualized beforehand,” Ofoegbu said.
The ‘Eaters proved tough to put away again, as McKenna Ross (into the net) and Hanna Hellvig (wide) committed attack errors to set up match point.
UH had a point upheld on an Irvine service error on a tense challenge — if Irvine won it the match was over right there — to get the Wahine within 14-13.
But Ofoegbu put down the match-winner emphatically through contact as the ‘Eaters mobbed each other on their side of the floor, then composed themselves to shake hands at the net.
“I was just hoping I didn’t get blocked, if I’m being honest,” Ofoegbu said. “I just wanted to stay aggressive on the last point, and not tip or not be scared, because we have nothing to lose. We said, let’s just go.”
Ofoegbu (.440 hitting) only recently turned 17 years old. She’d had some up-and-down performances leading into this week.
“We put a lot of work into her this week. And she needs a lot of work. She’s really young,” Hain said. “So she needed a week of practice. Our preseason was so jam-packed we didn’t really get to practice. We got four practices this week with her, and it shows. So she’s learning and she’s staying aggressive, and that’s what we asked.”
UH gets a quick chance to respond Saturday night at 7 against Cal State Fullerton (8-6, 0-3). The Wahine are 40-0 all-time against the Titans.