The UC Santa Cruz men’s volleyball team kicked off its 2016 season with a pair of convincing wins against Holy Names and Benedictine University over the weekend.
The Slugs came into the game against Division II Holy Names with the debut of Paul Leon, the interim head coach. Prior to accepting the position in December, Leon was the assistant coach to former head coach and 2015 American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Division III Men’s Head Coach of the Year Todd Hollenbeck. Leon also had a prolific career as a setter of the men’s team from 2008-2012.
“Paul is a really good choice,” said UCSC athletic director Cliff Dochterman. “He was a successful assistant coach and an accomplished player of the game who truly understands the culture and personality of UCSC’s athletic program.”
Backed by a packed home crowd, Leon and his team brought out a great performance at the West Field House. The opening set against Holy Names remained tight, with both teams finding their rhythm. It wasn’t until the Slugs found their first lead at 15-14, that they started to gain momentum off junior outside hitter Jake Howard’s ace serve. They clinched the first set 25-22 after a serving error from Holy Names.
The second set was thrilling with more kills and errors from the Slugs than the first set. When the Slugs and Hawks continuously exchanged leads, it was middle blocker Jorge Reyes who stayed vocal with his team, encouraging members after intense moments. Leon commended Reyes’s leadership that kept the defense intact. The Slugs eventually pulled away 25-21 and took a 2-0 lead into the third set.
In the third set, the Slugs outmatched Holy Names in hitting percentage and kills, recording three times the number of kills than their opponents. The Hawks struggled defensively and the Slugs took the last set steadily (25-14) to win the match.
“We had the opportunity to work on the fundamentals we have been practicing on, and it worked today against the Hawks,” Leon said. “It is good to start the season off with a high note and a great crowd backing us.”
Junior outside hitter Jake Howard was another standout, recording a match-high 11 kills.
“Our core starters all performed at a high level, and we got a lot of great support from our bench,” Howard said. “It was a team effort and showed just how strong we can be as a unit.”
The Slugs played Benedictine the next night and swept 3-0. Howard had a match-high of 14 kills and Evan Kittle led with 29 assists. They will take the court again against Lakeland at Cal Lutheran on Jan. 22.
“Paul, as well as our assistant coaches [Mauro Salinas and Shane Yablonka], have all stepped into our program seamlessly,” Howard said. “As they are all former UCSC players, they know what it is like to be a student athlete on this team and are very clear on what the expectations are for this season.”