CSUN men’s volleyball falls to UCLA after tight battle in set three

Libero Taylan Cook, 22, dives for the ball on the last play of the game, which the Matadors lost to the UCLA Bruins on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at the Premier America Credit Union Arena in Northridge, Calif.

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

The Matadors fell short of an upset against the UCLA Bruins Friday evening, fighting hard to extend set three after dropping the first two to their Southern California rivals.

CSUN (4-4) fell to the second-ranked Bruins in three sets during their first meeting this season, and came out looking to avenge their loss. Fourth in the NCAA in blocks per set and 10th in kills per set, UCLA (7-0) demonstrated from the get-go why they are such a tough opponent.

The Bruins crowded the net early on, sending two players to try to block every ball the Matadors sent their way.

A pair of kills from Ethan Champlin and two more from Ido David, two outside hitters the Matadors faced in the first match, contributed to an early 6-3 lead for the Bruins. The Matadors fought back, with Griffin Walters producing three of CSUN’s first four kills.

“My philosophy to be a good hitter is to not care about making mistakes, and really just going out there and having fun,” Walters said. “It also helps that we have a great setter who can put the ball where it needs to be.”

That setter, Lance Krenik, contributed 28 assists through the match, while Walters collected 14 kills.

Just as fast as the Bruins grabbed the lead, the Matadors tied the game at 11 thanks to four Bruin errors and a pair of kills from Kyle Hobus.

The ensuing Bruin 5-0 run, capped off by another kill from David, gave them control of the set, which they never relinquished. The Matadors pushed back when Walters smacked the ball hard into the gap in UCLA territory, but the Bruins took the set when outside hitter Cooper Robinson reciprocated the act.

Set two started in a similar fashion. The Bruins continued crashing the net and earned their first two points off blocks. A service error by CSUN opposite Malcolm King put the Bruins up 4-2. The Matadors came close to tying the set at five, but the referees’ ruling that a Bruins kill was in bounds took the point from the Matadors.

Throughout the rest of the set, libero Taylan Cook made a number of diving saves for CSUN, earning seven digs in the match to keep the Matadors in contention for points that looked out of reach.

“TC is one of those guys who’s starting to gain a lot of experience,” head coach Theo Edwards said. “He played for us last year, and now I feel like he’s starting to find his rhythm and really figure out where he can be the best version of himself for the team.”

The Matadors could not tie or take the lead, however, losing the set 25-16, their widest margin of defeat in either match against the Bruins.

The Matadors defended a lot more aggressively in set three, and jumped out to a 5-2 lead thanks to a couple of Bruins errors and kills by King and Lorenzo Bertozzi, who were just substituted in. A service error and a miscommunication on the part of the Matadors allowed the Bruins to keep the set within reach.

CSUN continued to pressure, earning a point off a kill that nearly went out of bounds before two Matadors dove to the ground in an effort to save a loose ball. Even though they were unable to get the ball over the net on the play, the Matadors earned the approval of the crowd as they started building momentum.

“Our goal was to really try to affect them, change their shots, and I feel like in the third set, we were finally able to do that,” Edwards said. “There were moments in the first and second but I feel like we were a little timid out of the gate, and once we started to kind of catch our rhythm it felt like we were right there with them.”

The teams continued exchanging points until back-to-back kills by the Bruins gave them the lead, 12-11, which they didn’t hold for long.

A serve that went long tied the game again, and saves by Cook and Walters set up a lead-grabbing kill by Hobus for the Matadors. The Matadors grabbed the three-point lead thanks to a kill by Walters as both the crowd and the team got into it.

Two Bruins kills allowed UCLA to come within one, but an attack error gave the Matadors a point back. King then slammed the ball into Bruins territory for a kill that led to a deafening yell from the fans.

The Matadors kept the Bruins at arms-length as the teams exchanged points, before Champlin secured a powerful kill for the Bruins and a Matadors attack error brought UCLA within one.

The score was 23-22, and Matadors fans booed as the Bruins served the ball. After equalizing with a service ace from J.R. Norris IV, the Bruins silenced the Matadors on a kill by David, forcing a Matadors timeout as CSUN went into desperation mode.

A Bruins service error made the crowd let out another yell of joy, but on the next play, UCLA managed to keep a kill in bounds to take the lead. The Matadors mistimed a kill attempt on the next play and watched the ball drop in their territory to give the Bruins the win, 26-24.

“We’ve gotten to play some of the toughest teams of our schedule this early on in our season, so it really has prepared us mentally,” Hobus said. “We’re a great team. We have all the talent in the world to compete with teams like UCLA and USC, but we have new guys coming in year in and year out, so we just need to learn to play these big matches together and win together and lose together too.”

The Matadors will face Vanguard on Wednesday and Stanford on Friday in the final two legs of their homestand, looking to return to the win column after dropping their last two matches.