Freshman outside hitter Lake Merchen. Courtesy of Bob Hurwitz
Freshman outside hitter Lake Merchen. Courtesy of Bob Hurwitz

After winning five matches in three days last week in New York, the UC Santa Cruz men’s volleyball team finished its season with an overall record of 24-5 and a six-game win streak heading into a potential postseason run. The Slugs are currently ranked No. 2 in the country for Division III men’s volleyball and are likely to return to the postseason after being left out last season.

The tournament lineup will be announced next Monday.

“If we go to playoffs we will be playing games back to back to back,” said freshman outside hitter Lake Merchen. “It was a good test to see if we were mentally and physically capable of maintaining a high level of play and we showed that.”

The Slugs left UCSC on Wednesday morning at 3 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight out of San Francisco to Chicago, where they were then connected to Buffalo, New York. On Thursday, the team faced the Medaille Mavericks at the Sullivan Center in Buffalo. The Slugs won each set 25-18, 25-19 and 25-19 making for a 3-0 sweep for their first match of the week.

The following night the team faced No. 6 Division III opponent Nazareth College of Pittsford, New York at the Elmira Tournament in Elmira, New York.

“Nazareth is our rival and they are a great program,” said head coach Todd Hollenbeck. “Almost all of their players have at least two inches on our entire roster, they are excellent hitters.”

What the Slugs lacked in height they made up for in skill, talent and execution. The team was not aced once and had seven aces to nine errors in the match. The squad won two straight sets 25-22 and 25-16 with ease, but dropped the third set 23-25 before finishing with a strong 25-20 victory to close out the match.

“Serving and passing won us our matches,” said senior captain Jake Hurwitz, who recorded 35 digs over the course of the tournament. “We worked on that so much in practice. We kept them out of system. We are much better blocking this year than last year. When you serve well and block well you’re going to win.”

The Slugs played their second game of the day and their third in two nights on Friday, matching up against SUNY Poly, which ended in a 3-0 victory for UCSC. On Saturday the team closed out the tournament with wins against Elmira (3-1) and D’Youville (3-0).

“This weekend was the crispest we’ve ever played. It was tough this weekend, but it was our chance to play tired and win,” Hollenbeck said. “The guys pulled up their bootstraps and played really well. It was a different kind of good. It was a different experience than we’ve had all season. This will help us with the national tournament. We’re not going to get the easiest schedule, ever, because we are the only Division III team in California. So this type of weekend was good for us.”

This trip was key for the team because the only way for a West Coast team to get a bid to the NCAA Tournament is to dominate every other team. That way, there is little for the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) to debate and find a legitimate excuse to keep the Slugs out of a chance for a national title run.

The Slugs will face extensive travel during the tournament as the only West Coast school in the division, with the next closest team playing in New York. Since UCSC is a part of the Division III Independents instead of a specific conference, it relies on the AVCA committee for an “at large” bid. The seeding and bidding criteria will evaluate UCSC’s strength of schedule, head-to-head wins against other Division III teams and results versus common Division III opponents.

“I haven’t seen us play at 100 percent yet and in the past I’ve seen us play 100 percent early and when we go to the tournament we play 80 percent,” Hollenbeck said. “This is a good time for us, I’m excited because I truly believe we can play even better than we have yet this season.”