Members of the men's volleyball team at UC Santa Cruz. Photo by Morgan Grana.

The UC Santa Cruz men’s volleyball team has been within reach of winning the division championship, but has never taken it all. Last weekend, the Slugs took a six-hour flight to Springfield, Mass. to make their sixth championship tournament appearance in the last nine seasons.

After two hard-fought matches, the Slugs must wait until next year if they are to bring glory home.
The NCAA Division III men’s volleyball tournament invited nine teams to compete for the first time in 2012.

While UCSC may have ranked second nationally entering the tournament, 2012 Continental Volleyball Conference (CVC) Coach of the Year winner and UCSC coach Todd Hollenbeck said his team could win because of all the work they put in.

“At this point, it’s about team chemistry,” Hollenbeck said. “We’ve done all the technical work. Our team culture has really taken over and the guys have done a great job working together. We all have high expectations. [But] it’s playoffs — anything can happen. There’s a lot of talent.”

The tournament was troubling from the start. Against seventh-seeded Rivier College, the Slugs outlasted a difficult five-set win. In the semi-final match, Carthage College blasted their way to a 3-1 victory, ending the Slugs’ run.

“They came firing and attacking us. It wasn’t anything we weren’t expecting,” senior libero Darren Tsai said in a post-game press conference. “They just outplayed us today.”

In a rematch of the CVC tournament final held in late March, the Slugs played against a well-known Carthage College squad, which continually frustrated the team this season. Although UCSC led the regular season series 2-1, including a 3-0 sweep for the CVC championship, Coach Hollenbeck said in the post Rivier game press conference that Carthage was UCSC’s true rival despite the team’s success this season.

“Every time we face Carthage, it’s always a battle,” Hollenbeck said. “They’re a great team. The competition’s there.”

Team captain and senior setter Paul Leon knew the match would be an aggressive one.

“We expected a dogfight,” Leon said. “When you play a team four times, you pick up on their tendencies.”

Neither team could shake each other off in the first set. Smashing kills and forced errors ran up the score quickly. With a 22-22 deadlock, Carthage crawled to a first set victory, before taking the second set.

Down 2-0 by the third set, the Slugs opened with a 7-2 lead, which led Carthage to an early timeout. UCSC dominated the next several possessions with explosive kills. A late run by Carthage shaved off most of the lead, coming within three points, the closest they had been since 5-2. The Slugs answered the run by taking the set 25-20, momentarily keeping their season alive.

The fourth set finished the Slugs’ season as an early 11-7 lead disappeared quickly. Junior outside hitter Salvatore La Cavera launched an overwhelming kill, silencing loud Carthage cheers and pushing the Slugs within two points. The heroics weren’t enough to stop Carthage’s 25-18 set win, ending the Slugs’ championship aspirations.

Since 2004, the Slugs have finished in the top five of the nation five times. The team has come close to winning the championship before, finishing twice as national runners-up in 2004 and 2010. Carthage has finished no worse than third place in the past three seasons, but has yet to win the championship. The Carthage College Redmen lost in the championship match against hometown Springfield College.

Along with another post-season appearance, 2012 brought player and coach recognition to UCSC. Along with UCSC coach Todd Hollenbeck’s CVC Coach of the Year awardee, players La Cavera, Paul Leon, Darren Tsai and Jake Dietrich earned CVC All-Tournament Team honors.

Leon said he appreciated the All-Tournament Team honors.

“The season has been an unbelievable experience: being a senior and getting to be team captain and to see how we’ve grown as a team,” Leon said. “Even though we didn’t win, I wouldn’t take back a day.”