For the second straight year, and for the fourth time in seven years, the Anteaters are the champions of men’s volleyball. On May 4, 364 days after defeating USC for the 2012 National Championship, UC Irvine upset no. 1-ranked Brigham Young University at Pauley Pavilion in three sets (25-23, 25-22, 26-24) for their first national title under first-year head coach David Kniffin.
“We came into this season with this as our objective,” Kniffin said. “A lot of us had BYU as the team to beat, and I’m incredibly proud of our ability to capitalize tonight and of the collective effort and perspectives on this staff. Coming in, we knew of a couple of chinks in BYU’s armor and we exposed them.”
The Cougars swept the regular season between the two teams, coming back from a two sets to none deficit on March 1 at the Bren Events Center to shock the Anteaters in five. BYU head coach Chris McGown was impressed by UC Irvine’s ability to repeat considering that they did so under a first-year head coach.
“Just thinking about how hard it is to get here,” McGown said. “I know how hard we worked, so for [UCI] to do that knowing they won a title last year shows how hard they worked as well.”
With the win, UCI becomes the first team to repeat as national champions since UCLA accomplished the feat in 1995 and 1996. Junior outside hitter Connor Hughes was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, registering 11 kills, two digs and four blocks against BYU on Saturday, after killing the game-winner on Thursday to send UCI to the title game.
It was a bit of déjà vu for the Anteaters on Saturday night. One year ago, Coach Kniffin was standing in the front row behind the service line at the Galen Center as Dan McDonnell stepped to the line on match point, up 25-24, with UCI up two sets to none on USC. Kniffin was an assistant coach for the University of Illinois’ women’s volleyball team at the time. He had flown back to support players he coached up as an assistant coach at UCI for five years.
On Saturday, Connor Hughes stepped up to the line, with Irvine once again up 25-24 and two sets to none on match point. But behind Hughes was former coach John Speraw, now head coach at UCLA, looking on at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion as players he recruited were on the brink of a national championship.
Hughes’ serve was dug, set and spiked by BYU, but up came the six-foot-nine-inch junior middle blocker, Scott Kevorken, who blocked his 11th attack of the game. BYU desperately threw a hand up, deflecting the ball to the service line. Two Cougars sprinted and dove for the loose ball, one sending the ball high into the air but sailing over the press table. Two more Cougars sprinted over to the table, contemplating a heroic dive, but ended up staring down the ball as it dropped — ending their season and crowning the Anteaters.
Players rushed the court to celebrate, but as all of the chaos ensued, junior setter Chris Austin trotted over to his coach who was embracing assistant coach Mark Presho on the sideline. Austin waited his turn and then hugged Kniffin, who led quite possibly the smoothest coaching transition in college volleyball history this season as Speraw looked on as host at UCLA.
“We didn’t need to relearn anything this year,” junior middle blocker Colin Mehring said. “[Coach Kniffin] knew our personalities and knew how to keep us winning. He believed in our culture and didn’t do a complete 180 this year. Every team is different from year to year, but he didn’t try to change everything.”
Despite the 3-0 sweep on Saturday, UCI won the match by just seven points. The Anteaters didn’t hold a lead until a BYU attack error gave them a 13-12 advantage in the first set. Down 23-22, Connor Hughes recorded his seventh kill of the first set to knot it at 23. On the ensuing serve, BYU was rejected by a trio of Connor Hughes, Chris Austin and Scott Kevorken, who stuffed the Cougars’ attack and forced a BYU timeout with UCI up 24-23.
Coming out of the timeout, Kniffin subbed in freshman outside hitter Kyle Russell, who sent a shot down the sideline, clipping the baseline for a point and the first set — 25-23, UCI.
In the second set, BYU had UCI reeling, as they went down 11-4 after Russ Lavaja gave the Cougars their third straight kill after a UCI timeout. Irvine answered back with three straight kills of their own — one by Hughes and two straight by Kevorken to close the gap to 11-7. BYU took a timeout to slow the Anteaters down, but it just gave Coach Kniffin another chance to talk to his team.
“We had a conversation in the huddle and I just told them we don’t need to tie this thing up right now, we just need to win one point,” Kniffin said. “We just needed the next point. If there was a team who could win one point it was going to be us.”
The Anteaters closed the gap to 12-11 after going on a 4-1 run as a result of one BYU attack error, two kills by senior outside hitter Kevin Tillie and a kill by sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera.
UCI later took a 23-21 lead after Maehring smashed his third and final kill of the set, capping off a 6-3 run for the ’Eaters.
On set point, Scott Kevorken and Zack La Cavera registered back-to-back blocks, sending the latter between two BYU opponents and off the hardwood for the point and the set — 25-22, UCI leading two sets to nil.
In the third set, BYU had Irvine on the ropes and threatened to turn the momentum around. No team led by more than two points until it was 23-20 in BYU’s favor. After a kill by La Cavera, his 11th of the night, BYU’s Taylor Sander responded with a kill, making it a triple set point for the Cougars.
Down 24-21, UCI did what they did all night — they clawed and won one point at a time. A Kevorken kill narrowed the gap to two and then Sander committed an attack error, closing the deficit to one at 24-23. Coach McGown took a timeout for the Cougars. Out of the timeout, UCI blocked as if their libero forgot how to dig. Kevorken, Austin and Tillie triple-stuffed a BYU attack at the net, knotting it at 24.
Austin and Kevorken then stuffed Sander to make it match point for the ’Eaters. With Hughes at the service line, a solid BYU dig and set were spoiled by La Cavera and Kevorken, who sent the shot back with authority, ricocheting off one BYU player’s arm, then hustled down by Sander before landing just in front of the front row of BYU fans, past the media and out of the range of the Cougars’ pursuing players –—26-24, UCI.
Kevorken, who had seven kills and 11 blocks on the evening, could feel the adrenaline pumping after leaping in front of BYU’s swings for hours at the net.
“It was a pretty big moment,” Kevorken said. “It didn’t feel like last year. I was a lot more controlled. It didn’t feel like it was the national championship game, it felt like any other point.”
At practice, the Anteaters often competed in head-to-head situations that simulate the closing points of sets. In the points that followed UCI’s 20th point of all three sets, UCI held a 16-9 advantage when they needed it most.
“UCI played inspired volleyball and kept us out of our system the whole match,” McGown said, as two of his BYU players sat next to him on the verge of tears.
When asked if he had any more cards up his sleeve after coaching an exceptional game, Coach Kniffin replied, “I’ve got no cards left. It had less to do with me and more to do with the preparation my staff put in and our players’ execution.”