LOS ANGELES -- BYU’s Ben Patch gave it everything he had, diving headlong past the baseline for a volleyball that wasn’t coming back. And when the ball that was blocked back at the net by Scott Kevorken finally hit the floor so far away from the court, the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship match was over and UC Irvine was No. 1.
UCI’s national-championship win over Brigham Young on Saturday night might be the closest thing to a dynasty that men’s college volleyball has seen in a long time.
After all, the Anteaters’ 25-23, 25-22, 26-24 victory was their school’s fourth in seven years and it gave them back-to-back titles, the first time it’s been done since UCLA won it all in 1995 and ’96.
But it was so much more than that.
This season was destined to be something different a month after last year’s championship victory over USC when longtime head coach John Speraw left for his alma mater, UCLA. So UCI tabbed a former assistant, David Kniffin, who had left to coach the women for a season at Illinois.
And then there was this season, when BYU beat UCI in both their meetings in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play. Even Saturday night on UCLA’s court inside Pauley Pavilion, the Cougars led 11-4 in the second set and 24-21 in the third, a lead that seemed to mean surely there would be a fourth set.
Down 21-19, Kniffin used his first time out. He never bothered with the second, although the deficit got worse.
BYU star Taylor Sander, who led everyone with 20 kills, came flying out of the back row for a vicious kill that not only sent him to the front row, but had everyone preparing for a fourth set. After all, the last time these teams had played, BYU, down 0-2 and trailing 19-14 in the third, came back to win in five.
The Anteaters pulled to 24-22 on a kill by Kevorken. Then Sander came flying in from the left side but hit the ball out past the far sideline. BYU coach Chris McGown called time.
It didn’t help. A triple block by Kevorken, setter Chris Austin, and outside hitter Kevin Tillie saw Russ Lavaja’s swing go to the floor. It was tied at 24.
BYU went back to Sander again, and he was stuffed by Kevorken and Austin, who stared at Sander as the Anteaters went to a timeout huddle.
Sander, considered by many the nation’s best player, got the call again. This time Zack La Cavera and Kevorken, who had a solo block and six of his 11 block assists in the third set, were up to the task again.
The celebration began.
“I was telling myself on the bus on the ride over here that I wanted this really bad,” said Kevorken, a 6’9” product of Westlake Village, Calif., who had seven kills and hit .600. “And I knew that we were going to be on a big stage and once again with the tournament being held in southern California the fans from Irvine could come. When you’ve got fans out there I want to play big. And that’s a team I really wanted to go get and I studied that game plan really late last night.”
“I had to make sure I had a nap today to be on top of my game. I don’t think I was conscious of what I was doing at the time, every time I did something I was just like, ‘Get us one point closer.’ It was a great one.”
The middles for UCI dominated the net. Collin Mehring, a 6’7” junior from San Jose who came into prominence after the Anteaters’ trip last September to Argentina, had seven kills and two of UCI’s 30 block assists. UCI totaled 17 blocks on the match; BYU just six.
The two outsides, big-game guy Connor Hughes and Frenchmen Kevin Tillie, had 11 kills each and so did right side Zack La Cavera, who barely played last year but this season replaced the team’s go-to guy, Carson Clark.
“We really are a hard team to game plan against,” Kniffin said.
“Winning this is so great for me,” La Cavera said, close to getting choked up. “It was good for us, but I definitely struggled this year trying to find my place on the team. I knew I could be a starter and have a huge impact. So this was really great.”
Hughes, who had nine kills and hit .635 in UCI’s Thursday-night win over Loyola, went 11-for-32 against BYU, taking the most swings of anyone in the match except for Sander.
Sander did not get much help, especially not from super-freshman Patch. Patch, who was very effective against UCI in both previous matches this season, had just seven kills, his last at 12-9 in the second game. Lavaja and Josue Rivera had eight kills each for BYU.
“As you can imagine we’re understandably disappointed with the result, but UCI played inspired volleyball and were as good as anybody we’ve played this season in serve and serve receive,” second-year BYU coach Chris McGown said. “They kept us out of system all match, we had to take tough swings on the pins and never could get in an offensive rhythm.”
Before the game, as BYU was entering the building, former BYU head coach Carl McGown, Chris’s father and a volunteer coach, saw Speraw.
“We need you to come play middle for us,” the elder McGown joked.
If he only knew. Speraw, by the way, watched his former team from the baseline. He saw his former setter, Chris Austin, run a masterful game and play tremendous defense, too. The senior from Las Vegas had 43 assists, four of UCI’s 21 digs, a solo block, and five block assists.
“The thing that was so exceptional about Chris was that he had made all those [offensive] decisions before the match even started,” Kniffin said. “Obviously we worked on it collectively, but we had an idea of how we wanted to pick this team apart and he stayed true to it.”
A big beneficiary was Hughes, who came up so big that he named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“I am just so excited,” said Hughes, a junior from Costa Mesa, who had another big match a year ago in the title tilt. “It’s the types of moments that I’ve had my whole career.
“You really just have to live in the moment and I took that to heart. Live in the moment in these championship settings and I love it.”
Kniffin, he of the sport shirt and rolled-up sleeves, seemed to be taking it all in stride.
“The journey,” Kniffin said. “I know that sounds cliché, but I can’t say it enough. The journey has been exceptional. No question this is icing on the cake.”
Originally published in July 2013