Underdogs Seek Repeat

Courtesy of UCI Athletics

Courtesy of UCI Athletics
Freshman Kevin Wynne holds his own after replacing All-American David Smith in the middle blocker position.

The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team is an underdog? If you have heard even a little about the team in the last few years, this would seem absurd. If you knew about its final-four finish in 2006 and its national championship in 2007, this would sound insane. But the volleyball community has tagged this 2008 squad an underdog only to see the team happily accept the role and excel in it.
The season’s theme of inconsistency has many skeptics labeling this season as a “rebuilding year.” The thing they forgot to think about was the fact that with the Anteaters in the playoffs, and some very big wins recently against Santa Barbara and Pacific, the team has displayed the emergence of a cohesive young squad. An appearance in the post-season allows for a clean slate and the up and down season to be left behind.
“In the last two weeks we beat both Long Beach and Northridge who are supposed to be the best teams in conference. We came really close to beating Bringham Young University and, right now, we are all very confident we can beat anyone in our conference,” said Jon Steller.
The reason for the inconsistency throughout is due to the team’s fairly young core of guys with huge potential. The lack of team experience has made it difficult to establish a consistent lineup resulting in a few hiccups against some lower-ranked teams.
The phenomenal third-year libero, Brent Asuka, explained this challenge. “Anytime you lose four all-Americans, you’re going to go through a period of time where you have to start young players and figure out how to communicate and play together,” Asuka said. “But throughout the season we have learned to cope with one another and the inconsistencies have really decreased.” For a fan, this is the best thing you can hear from a team made up of young studs ready to show everyone their potential.
A stand out for the team this year is freshman Kevin Wynne, who is a pleasant surprise according to Asuka as he consistently produces over the course of the season at middle blocker. Coming into the season, he had some big shoes to fill, replacing one of last years’ All-Americans, David Smith. His consistent play is not, surprisingly, backed up by a very mature talk about how he approached the season.
“I’m just trying to go out there and play every game like it’s the last game,” Wynne said. This reflects how the entire team approached the season, and continues to before going into the post season.
This approach has eased the desire for the team to buy into the slogan, “A rebuilding year.” The team does have incredible potential, and to say the team will be a contender next year may be an understatement.
However, with the post-season at hand, those thoughts have to be put to the side.
“There is always that little voice in your head saying, ‘What can we do next year,’ but it’s really about this year and taking it one game at a time,” Wynne said.
The team feels that if it plays its best, on any given night, they can beat anyone in the conference and in the country. It has not allowed the disappointing losses to plague its mentality, and, with the team rolling now as one cohesive unit, it is to be feared in the post-season.
With the regular season ending on a sour note due to the loss to Stanford University, the team must regroup and push through any doubts that it has in its abilities. This is a new experience for everyone on the team. For the last two years, the team has been a very highly touted team with a lot of pressure to simply not lose. The team was consistently within the rankings as either one or two, and was always the team to going to matches. However, with its uneasy slide into the playoffs, the mood of the team is quite different than last year. Even with losses like Saturday night at Stanford, the team has pulled off some huge upsets throughout.
Asuka explained the positive aspect of this difference between this year and last year. “Last year, there was so much pressure on us to win, that the journey was a lot different than this year. This year no one expected us to do pretty much anything and it’s been fun upsetting these teams that no one expects to beat,” Asuka said.
The real surprise is the enthusiasm of taking on the role of the underdog. The team plays each point with desire and passion. With new guys on the court and a fresh outlook on how the team has performed throughout, a huge post-season is in store.
The first challenge will come on Wednesday as the team plays theUniversity of Southern California in its first post-season match. The team is looking forward to showing what it is really made of.