Can UCI Repeat?

Glenn Feingerts
UCI setter Daniel Stork sets up middle Collin Mehring.

Could they be saying “Zot! Zot! Zot!” once again when the final four of men’s NCAA volleyball gathers in May at UCLA?

After all, UC Irvine has won three of the previous six titles. And these Anteaters stand 17-5 (14-5 in the MPSF) and are ranked second in this week’s polls, including Volleyball’s.

Last year, of course, UCI won it all, sweeping USC on its home floor in the championship match. But a month later their coach for the previous 10 years, John Speraw, left for his alma mater, UCLA.

“Some guys were crushed,” UCI junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno admitted. “I think that most people who come to Irvine came because they’ve won national championships, and that was built by [Speraw]. Guys wanted to come and be coached by him. So when he left it felt like a betrayal to some guys and it left everyone wondering where the program would go.”

Dejno paused.

“Is Irvine self-sustaining or was it Speraw? That was a big question in everyone’s mind and then it went to who can fill in? And not just fill in, but sustain the culture or create another winning culture.”

One of Speraw’s past assistants, former UCI setter David Kniffin, got the job.

He came from Illinois, where, of all things, he had gone after five years at UCI to work with the women’s program. It so happened that the Illini made it to the 2011 final four. Kniffin said that time at Illinois confirmed for him that volleyball was something he wanted to do for the rest of his career.

“I am grateful every day,” Kniffin said. “I am one of the very coaches who gets to walk in and take over a program where there is already some investment on both sides of the table.

“The players know and trust me, I know and trust them – I was involved in the recruiting process for many of them – and it gives me a whole new level of respect for the coaches who are out there who are career hopping, going from school to school and starting new programs.

“We didn’t have to start from scratch here.”

That’s for sure. When the 2013 season started, “Everyone still had that high and the confidence we were living off of from last year,” UCI sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera said. “But we knew it wasn’t going to be the exact same with David Kniffin coming in with a new coaching staff.”

UCI was ranked No. 1 from the get-go, but has found out that current No. 1, BYU, is no small stumbling block. Two of the Anteaters’ five losses have been to BYU.

“This team is really different,” said French Olympian Kevin Tillie, a senior outside hitter. “We have different players on the court and at the same time we have returners, too. So it’s just a different group.”

In 2012, UCI finished the season 26-5.

“Last year was up and down. We started well, we lost, then we went back again, then we started losing again and then we came back at the end,” Tillie said.

“And I feel like this year is kind of the same thing. We started well, and then we had like three losses, and then we went on a big streak.”

They started 5-0 before losing three in a row, to USC, California Baptist, and BYU.

“We had a huge target on us at the beginning of the season,” La Cavera admitted. “I think that put us really on edge and it showed when we lost those matches. But it was actually good for us when we got ranked lower. It took some pressure off us and let us know that so what we won a national championship last year? It wasn’t going to help us this year. It definitely humbled us a little bit.”

It showed as UCI reeled off 11 victories in a row, ending February with a win over California Baptist.

March, however, put the Eaters back on the rollercoaster. They lost at home to BYU in five, won at Long Beach, lost at Pepperdine in four, but then went to USC and swept the Trojans this past Friday before getting a 15-day break in the schedule for midterm exams.

The team’s foundation was laid on a trip last September to Argentina when Kniffin got to be with his new team, minus Tillie, who was playing with the French national team.

“With so many seniors having graduated and Kniff as the new coach, we could go play some top-weighted volleyball and still try to find ourselves at the same time,” Dejno said. “It let us see what kind of volleyball team we wanted to be.”

Which is?

“I think we’re highly offensive and we knew that was going to be the case, but what we took away from Argentina was that we wanted to be a great blocking team. We’re better than last year, but we still haven’t reached our potential. And recently we might have turned into a more defense-oriented team.”

Kniffin agreed,

“We can win dirty,” said the coach, who set at UCI in 2002 and 2003 when it got its first No. 1 ranking. “I wouldn’t want to get in a rally against us. We’re good in long rallies and the longer we drag it out the better we get.”

Kniffin knew that trip was going to be a big part of what happened this season. UCI made a similar trip in the fall of 2008 before winning it all in 2009.

“It was as important from a volleyball standpoint as a cultural and team-bonding standpoint,” Kniffin said. “There was so much change in our program. Set the coaching staff aside and just look at the players, which is really what this is about. We had multiple All-Americans and All-MPSF players who had moved on. We lost five last year. That’s a huge turnover. So we needed that time to come together as a team and see what we were about. And there’s no better way to get to know someone than travel.”

The players quickly learned that nothing stays the same.

“At first I thought it would be pretty similar because Kniff was under Speraw’s wing for so long at UCI [2007-2011],” La Cavera said. “The transition was really smooth but I’m surprised at how different their coaching styles are. Our practices are pretty different and [Kniffin’s] demeanor is pretty different from Speraw’s. Kniff is a pretty mellow guy and doesn’t really get fired up. Speraw would have his practices where he would kind of get at us, but Kniff doesn’t get like that. You know when he’s mad obviously, but no yelling or anything like that. He’s a lot calmer.”

The Anteaters are an interesting mix that hits .308, fourth best in the nation.

Tillie, the 6’6” All-American, is averaging 3.96 kills per set, sixth in the MPSF, and has accumulated double-figure kills in UCI’s last 15 matches. He’s ranked fifth nationally in hitting percentage (.346).

La Cavera, who hadn’t played much in the past, has taken over the spot held down by Carson Clark, who had a match-high 22 kills in the NCAA-championship win over USC. La Cavera, from Huntington Beach, is averaging 2.18 kills per set.

Dejno, the Tai Chi-proponent from Wisconsin, had 21 kills in the win over Long Beach State two weeks ago and, according to Kniffin, “has developed his overall game.”

Setter Daniel Stork, the junior from Topanga, Calif., who was dealing with a concussion last year, is having a strong season as the team’s setter, averaging better than 10 assists per set.

But the biggest surprise has been 6’7” middle Colin Mehring, a junior from San Jose who seemingly came from nowhere to rank second in the MPSF in hitting percentage (.500) and fifth in blocks (1.32 per set). Merhing might have benefitted from the Argentina trip more than anyone.

“It’s pretty amazing how it all came about,” La Cavera said. “Last year [Mehring] wasn’t even traveling to games. No one really expected it, to be honest.”

And the other middle, 6’9” Scott Kevorken, a junior from Westlake Village, Calif., is third in the MPSF in hitting percentage (.496).

It all adds up to a team that has answered Dejno’s questions in a positive way.

“It is self-sustaining at least in the sense that UC Irvine will always be kind of like an underdog just because we don’t have the facilities and it takes a lot of work ethic,” said Dejno, who had 12 kills, three aces, and three blocks in the Anteaters’ last match, that sweep of USC.

“And everyone we recruit, that Speraw recruited and Kniffin does, too, shows that work ethic and character.”

All of which they hope pays off with a lot of Zot! Zot! Zot! in May.

“We’ll play the best volleyball down the stretch,” Kniffin said. “There are a lot of reasons we could win it, but the reason is because we’ll play better volleyball in the end.”

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