LOS ANGELES -- Finally.
First-year UC Irvine coach David Kniffin treated Saturday night’s NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship for what it is, for what most observers of the college game have predicted almost all season:
The defending-champion Anteaters against top-ranked Brigham Young University, a pairing of teams with at least three probable future Olympians and all the elements of an old-fashioned big-time sporting event.
“BYU is a team that we’ve been planning on playing since last year,” Kniffin admitted.
His counterpart, second-year BYU coach Chris McGown, more or less had UCI on its radar for a while.
“You never take anything for granted,” McGown said. “Lots of strange things happen in a season. But if you look at their bench top to bottom and you look at our bench top to bottom, there’s the broadest range of talent and experience.
“There are other teams in our conference that had phenomenal players, wonderful, wonderful players, but not quite the talent that these two teams have, that can come at you from any spot on the court, defend well, serve well, pass well ... I think that you can see that if all things went to plan this would be the matchup.”
BYU won both the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season matches between the teams, but it’s not that simple. In Provo, Utah, on January 18, the Cougars won 3-1. At Irvine on March 1, they fell behind 0-2 and trailed 19-14 in the third before coming back to win, 15-11 in the third.
But UCI has made changes since, including inserting senior Chris Austin at setter for junior Daniel Stork.
Accordingly, Kniffin, who served as an assistant at UCI before leaving for a year to coach with the Illinois women’s program, threw down a gauntlet, if you will.
“Whether these are the two teams that should be playing in the final, I don’t know, but these are the two teams that I envisioned playing in the final,” Kinffin said. “That’s something we’ve been training for all year.
“Now the nice thing about playing BYU is that at this time of year we’re exactly where we thought we’d be. We’re the No. 2 seed going in, we haven’t shown them all our cards. Part of that has been due to injury, part of that has been due to circumstance and part of that is that we don’t necessarily want them to see everything we’ve got. That’s the advantage we have with the lineup we have.”
And then Kniffin declared simply, “UCI is the underdog, but if I’m BYU I’m probably a little nervous.”
Change in strategy? Trick plays?
“We’re never holding back in terms of competing, but in terms of what we can do tactually against them,” Kniffin said.
Whatever, both teams have fabulous players.
BYU’s roster includes perhaps the best player in the nation, junior Taylor Sander, a do-it-all outside hitter who will be in the mix to make the 2016 Olympic team. The Cougars also have what most men’s volleyball observers see as the best freshman in a decade in Ben Patch, a spectacular leaper who gives BYU a right-side attack that is vicious.
And Saturday’s title match will be Patch’s last college competition for two years. After he leaves the junior national team in August, the product of Provo, Utah, where BYU is located, will be going on a two-year Mormon mission.
“It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience being able to play with your idols and standing by them and getting to play on the same team with Taylor Sander, who’s been the best player in the country the past couple of years, has been a humbling experience," he said.
Meanwhile, UCI’s star-studded rosters includes Kevin Tillie, expected to make the French Olympic team that his father coaches.
“This will be fun,” Tillie said. “I like playing against Sander and Patch. I expected to play them in the final. I think it will be a fun game to play.”
Added Kniffin, “This is going to be a great match to watch. Just speaking to the environment, the physicality that’s going to be on the court, the international experience. You’ve got a guy like Kevin Tillie, who’s played world league, and Taylor Sander, who’s spent time with the national team.”
Sander, for one, said to keep an eye on the next tier of players. The stars might not decide the match, he said.
“There are going to be a lot of big bangers out there, but it’s going to be who steps up behind the big players,” Sander said. “Who are the role players who are going to make a difference.”
That could be Connor Hughes or Scott Kevorken, or Collin Mehring for UCI, or Russ Lavaja or Josue Rivera for BYU.
Either way, top-level volleyball is top-level volleyball.
“It comes down to personnel and execution and we’ve got some phenomenal athletes on our team,” McGown said. “They certainly have wonderful athletes on their team. That’s something they have like no other team in the country. They go two deep at every position. At outside hitter they’re four deep. I think it’s going to make for a wonderful match and the caliber of player makes it really exciting.”
Penn State coach Mark Pavlik, who’s been in the last 25 final fours and lost to BYU in Thursday’s semifinals, expects a big-time match.
“What you’ve got is a very precise, physical team in Irvine that’s well coached. You’ve got BYU that’s this offensive juggernaut. They’ve got to stay in system against Irvine’s serving. BYU’s well coached and when they knock Irvine off the net, Irvine’s got to deal with that block. It’s going to be a very good match and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes five.”
“It’s not going to be a quick one,” Patch said. “It’s going to be a long, deep match. It’s going to go long and it’s going to be a good one.”
That would be a nice change for spectators from Thursday, when both Irvine (24-7), which ousted Loyola, and BYU (26-4) won in three sets.
“What BYU has coming at us is a red-hot offense,” Kniffin said. “Offensively they’ve been a really tough team to stop and they get into some long rallies and they have a couple of guys who can terminate the ball from just about anywhere on the court.”
UCI is trying to win its fourth title in seven years -- the last three under John Speraw, now the UCLA coach -- while BYU is going for its fourth title overall and first since 2004. What’s more, UCI is hoping to become the first team to repeat since UCLA did so in 1995-96.
A final we’ve all been expecting.
“The two best teams in the country, No. 1 and No. 2,” Patch said. “They kind of nailed it when they said it was going to be us. And here we are.”