At the College Nine/Ten dining hall, students cheered on No. 3 UCSC men's volleyball team in its NCAA quarterfinal match against No. 6 Nazareth. Photo by Vanessa Magee.
At the College Nine/Ten Dining Hall, students cheered on the No. 3 UCSC men’s volleyball team in its NCAA quarterfinal match against No. 6 Nazareth. Photo by Vanessa Magee.

The UC Santa Cruz Slugs flew 2,966 miles to Hoboken, New Jersey for their first NCAA Division III Tournament game this season — and they made every mile count in a five-set loss against the Nazareth Golden Flyers of Rochester, New York in the team’s third and final meeting this season.

The last time the Slugs faced the Golden Flyers in the postseason was in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, when the Slugs were swept 3-0.

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” said men’s volleyball head coach Todd Hollenbeck. “We expected them to come out fighting. In the first set we were prepared but after that, it got harder and harder to adapt.”

The Slugs found it near impossible to adapt to Nazareth junior outside hitter Tim Zyburt, who exploded in the match for a career-high 22 kills to three errors for a hitting percentage of .514 over five sets. The Golden Flyer’s second most effective offensive player, Chris Mahan, had nine kills over the five sets.

“Our blocking was trying to do a little too much. [Zyburt’s] a big guy and he’s smart as well. Our blocking should’ve been better, we needed to keep our composure and not let somebody get hot like that,” Reyes said. “He only needed a couple points to keep going and he never really stopped.”

UCSC’s Jake Landel, Lake Merchen, Branden Torado and Reyes each finished the match with kills in double digits, but the difference between the Slugs and the Golden Flyers play was attacking errors. The top three Eagle scorers combined for nine total attacking errors while the top Slugs — Landel, Torado and Merchen — combined for 14.

“The stats show that one or two mistakes at the crucial moment cost us the game,” Hollenbeck said.

In the first set there were three different lead changes before the Slugs inched away. After conceding a six-point advantage, the Slugs battled to pull away with a first set win (25-21), credited to solid hitting and blocking led by Jake Howard and Merchen. Merchen and the Slugs capitalized on a Nazareth service error and he had the set-winning block to put the Slugs up 1-0 in the match.

But Nazareth came out swinging and the Slugs failed to get back their rhythm, falling 25-16 in the second set.

“I told our guys that we can’t expect the other team to lay down for us, they are going to come back and they are going to fight hard. We had to reset,” Hollenbeck said.

The Slugs rallied back with an 8-2 run to start the third set. Nazareth took a time out and started to rally back. But the Slugs were too much to handle as they continued to dominate the third set, taking it 25-16.

Excellent swinging by Landel allowed the Slugs to maintain a slight lead early in the fourth set, but once Nazareth got the lead, the Golden Flyers refused to let it slip back into the hands of UCSC. The fourth set was a battle zone as neither team lead by more than three points at any time during the set. In the middle of the set with a one-point lead, the Golden Flyers coach took a timeout, but that didn’t stop the Slugs from battling back from a 23-21 deficit to tie the set at 23. UCSC’s Reyes had a crucial service error in the final points of the set and the Slugs eventually dropped the set 26-24 when an offensive play hit the service wire.

“I was trying to be a hero in my serve and wasn’t focusing on trying to get it in,” Reyes said. “I should’ve trusted my teammates and kept the ball in play.”

In the fifth set, the Golden Flyers started to pull away. UCSC setter Blake Chadwick, who totaled 55 assists in the match, kept the Slugs alive with crucial plays and kept UCSC offense moving. His efforts allowed the Slugs to inch within two points of the Golden Flyers, but Nazareth was able to use its energy to counter the Slugs desperation, forcing them to surrender the set 15-12, eliminating the Slugs from the postseason.

“I am not disappointed in our play,” Hollenbeck said. “We played great for the most part but one or two errors at certain moments cost us the set. We were beat by a team that played harder at certain times.”

With a lot of returners next season, Hollenbeck and Reyes are optimistic about what the team can accomplish.

“Half the team is freshmen, I’m the only junior,” Reyes said. “Steady first is our motto. We weren’t able to give it all in this game but we will be back.”