Jun 21, 2022 12:00 PM PST

L.A. Blaze Stalls with Uncharacteristic 0-2 Weekend

The L.A. Blaze struggled with consistent energy all weekend, resulting in a 1-3 defeat at the hands of the currently undefeated New Jersey Freedom and a shocking 0-3 sweep at the hands of the Inland Empire Matadors. 

Blaze vs Freedom

For the match against Freedom, Blaze would see a slow start. Freedom quickly jumped out to lead off a solid offensive start from Joe Norman. They would continue to extend their lead to eight as Blaze struggled to score around the large Freedom block. The two teams would continue to trade points through the end of the frame, highlighted by powerful offensive attacks from middles Steven Rotter and Damani Lenore on Blaze. However, it wouldn’t be enough as Freedom finished the set on a kill by Norman to go up 1-0. 

Blaze would come out swinging in the second set, abusing the Freedom block and finding some blocking success of their own. The teams would exchange points throughout the middle half, including some big kills from Blaze’s Wilson Aponte. However, Blaze would pull away at the end to tie the match at 1-1. That would be as close as Blaze would get, as Freedom took advantage of the dip in Blaze energy. 

The third set saw a battle of the middles, as Lenore and Rotter would see more balls from Blaze setter Maikel Bastida while Tom Burrell and Matt Buffum of Freedom would combine for seven blocks in the set. Freedom took an early lead and maintained it throughout the rest of the match. A strategic sub would keep Blaze within three but ultimately would still lead to Freedom taking the set to go up 2-1. 

From there, the Freedom offense continued to dominate, with Buffum and Burrell combining for 19 kills on a whopping 0.438 hitting percentage, including an errorless Burrell. Charles Belvin of Blaze would hold Freedom’s lead to five for most of the set, having nine kills and hitting 0.438 through only two sets of play, but it would not be enough as Freedom would take the 4th and the match, 3-1.

Blaze vs. Matadors

The Inland Empire Matadors finished Event 4 with one of the season's biggest upsets as they managed to pull a 3-0 sweep over the Los Angeles Blaze. The Matadors came together as a team with all their players filling in their roles, capitalizing on Blaze's errors and lack of firepower, missing their starting Outside, Travis O'Gorman.

As a passing unit, Matadors' outside Eric Beaty and Jordan Walley averaged 79% perfect passing, with Beatty taking 15 attempts and Walley with 23. Additionally, both of the Matadors' middles had high-efficiency nights with no errors or blocks, with Ben Gabor hitting at 67% on nine swings and Noah Lassandro hitting 50% on ten swings. Lassandro even had a low out blocking performance claiming four stuff blocks himself leading all other players in the match. Setter Victor Vazquez had an impressive offensive showing himself as he played aggressively at the net with 11 attack attempts, scoring on six at 55%, proving to be an unconventional but advantageous playing style.

LA Blaze saw a phenomenal performance by opposite hitter Charles Belvin who scored 18 points in only a three-set match. On 23 attacking attempts, Belvin scored 16 points swinging at 70% efficiency and snagged two stuff blocks himself. Besides Belvin, Outside Rafael Cruz maintained a substantial 52% kill efficiency on 21 attempts. Unfortunately, Blaze struggled on the service line, committing 17 service errors without a single ace point.

In the end, Matadors increased their passing percentage every set thanks to Blaze's errors from the service line, passing at 80% positive passing in the last set, compared to Blaze's 60% average on the match. Even with Blaze scoring 66% of the time on positive receptions compared to the Matadors' 49%, the teams remained matched on hitting percentage. The slight advantage allowed Matadors to pull away in their side-out game while Blaze struggled to score more than one break point for every seven of their serves while the Matadors scored every four serves.

Heading Into Event 5

Blaze is in danger of losing their playoff contention if the Chicago Untouchables can pull off a 2-0 sweep in their next event. Such an outcome would require the Chicago team to take down LA Blaze and the Texas Tyrants head-on, which they have come close to doing in their last matchups, going 2-3 each time.

- NVA Saff Writer