The CSUN men’s volleyball team did not have the odds in their favor Saturday night when they played No. 2 UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Mountain Pacific Federation playoffs.
Not only had the Matadors lost six matches in a row against the Bruins, but the team had to defeat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, a place that has historically given them fits.
But overcoming all obstacles, CSUN shocked UCLA in five sets to advance to the MPSF semifinals for the first time since 1993. Down four match-points in the fifth game, the Matadors rallied for six straight points to steal the win from the Bruins in front of a stunned home audience of 644 at Pauley Pavilion, 30-25, 30-27, 18-30, 22-30, 16-14.
CSUN (19-13) got off to a quick start and surprised UCLA (25-5) by winning the first two sets. Both were hard-fought affairs, with CSUN pulling away in the end.
Senior outside hitter Nils Nielsen, who finished the game with 28 kills, closed out game one with a kill while game two ended on a double-hit violation by Bruin setter Aaron Dodd.
UCLA, which was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation all year, then changed its lineup and began to dominate. The Bruins out-hit the Matadors .630 – .381 in game three and .438 – .212 in game four, leading to the amazing game five finish.
Trailing 14-10, hitter Brian Waite started the final rally by hammering a kill into the open court, cutting the Bruins’ lead to three.
The Matadors then used the serving prowess of freshman outside hitter Isaac Kneubuhl to score five straight points and record the improbable victory.
“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life,” said Kneubuhl, who had committed two service errors earlier in the game.
Kneubuhl did not appear nervous this time as he hit a soft jump-serve over the net, and UCLA’s Paul Johnson had his attempt to end the game blocked by Waite. The score was now 14-12.
Bruin head coach Al Scates called time, in hopes of “icing” Kneubuhl, but to no avail. He hit his next serve inbounds, and was able to get into defensive position in time to dig out a ferocious spike, and keep the point alive.
Waite, junior outside hitter Cary Hanson, and senior setter Jeff Conover eventually converged on a block and cut the lead to just one.
Again UCLA called timeout, and again Kneubuhl came back with a solid serve. When the Bruins popped the ball up too close to the net, Conover was able to smash it down to tie the game at 14.
Now out of timeouts, UCLA was unable to stop CSUN’s momentum. The Matadors repelled another Bruin attack, and Hanson got the kill to give CSUN a match point.
Kneubuhl hit one more soft jump-serve, and UCLA’s Dodd gave a quickset for Johnson, whose spike was again brilliantly blocked by Waite, sending the Matador players, coaches and fans into hysteria.
The UCLA faithful, who had been utterly ecstatic only moments earlier, now watched in stunned silence and disbelief as the Matadors leaped and danced in a massive group-hug while the Bruins walked to the locker room.
“Volleyball is a game of momentum,” said Matador head coach Jeff Campbell. “When you’ve got it, you can score points, and the pressure goes to the other team. This is one of the best feelings, to be down that much and to come back and win.”
The two teams had faced each other three times this year, with UCLA winning each meeting. The last time CSUN beat UCLA was in February of 2003. Before Saturday’s game, UCLA had a 14-1 record at home this year.
“I was like, ‘I hope this isn’t the end of the road for us,’ and I was thinking ‘What a waste of a game,'” said Kneubuhl. “But we all had a little fight left in us.”
Waite and Hanson each racked up 11 kills, while sophomore middle blocker James Lischer had 10 kills and hit .533. Sophomore Sebastian Pedraza had a team-high 15 digs for CSUN and Gray Garrett had a career-high 24 kills for UCLA in the loss.
Another tough challenge awaits CSUN, who has now won 10 of its last 13 matches, as the team will have to travel to face the No. 1 team in the nation, 21-2 Pepperdine, Thursday night at 5 p.m. in the semifinals.
The Waves beat CSUN twice in the regular season, but as last Saturday proved, past encounters don’t have any barring on predicting the winners of these hotly contested playoff meetings, especially with the momentum of the shocking victory over UCLA under CSUN’s belt.
“What this (match) shows is that our guys have a lot of heart, a lot of fight,” said Campbell. “Being down 14-10 in the fifth game, it shows they’re gritty, they work hard and they never quit.”