Austin Setting the Standard

 

Junior setter Chris Austin stood on the staircase outside the Student Center alongside his teammates as Coach John Speraw honored the 2012 UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team on May 7. The Anteaters won their third NCAA Championship in six years in a 3-0 sweep over USC at the Galen Center on May 5.

During the ceremony, Speraw announced that Chris Austin is the first African-American starting setter to win the NCAA Championship. While Austin is proud to have earned such distinction, aiming for individual awards was not his aim throughout the season.

“It’s always nice to set records and start trends and stuff. It’s a cool thing,” Austin said. “It’s not my main point of focus. I try to see that anybody can do anything regardless of height, weight, athletic ability, race and whatever. But it’s definitely an awesome thing to be able to represent the African-[American] community in that way.”

Despite becoming a memorable footnote in collegiate volleyball history, Austin’s accomplishments weren’t because of race, but hard work. Just a year ago, Austin was ready to transfer to UCI from Long Beach City College after winning the 2011 Western State Conference. Now, he’s one of the key players on a national championship team.

“Twelve days later it still feels unreal,” Austin said. “And it hits me every morning I wake up.”

As a new transfer, Austin hardly found any playing time due to his unfamiliarity with the system, but a golden opportunity came on Wednesday, Feb. 22, the night the Cal State Northridge Matadors saw red at the Bren Event Center. During a practice that occurred earlier that week, senior Alex Reis hit a cross-court ball that hit starting setter Daniel Stork hard. Stork was injured and had to sit out for a week. Speraw had no choice but to give Austin the reins as the team’s new starting setter.

In the first set, Austin shook off the jitters as the Anteaters went on an 8-2 run, including three aces to open up the scoring. Austin finished the game with 41 assists and not a single error.

“It was actually in the first set that I started feeling comfortable,” Austin said. “I mean, we started on a big time serving run. So I didn’t have to do a lot of setting. After a little time went on in the first game, I realized that as long as we have good passes, I can set any option and it’s going to go well for us.”

Following the 3-0 sweep over CSUN, Austin was truly put to the test against rival Long Beach State. He made two attacking errors, one service error and one blocking error, but he managed to gut out 37 assists from 81 attempts along with three kills and a blocked shot. From then on, the starting spot was his to keep.

The transition from junior college volleyball to Division I was an arduous climb for Austin. The summer before his first season, Austin trained and did repetitions with his new teammates. Playing in a new system, Austin needed plenty of repetitions in order to have a better feel for his teammates. There were plenty of adjustmenets to make. One major obstacle was getting used to playing alongside and against Division I talent instead of local guys from the neighboring communities like he did at Long Beach City College.

“The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was pace of the game,” Austin said. “It’s definitely faster here, and there’s not that high of a window for error.”

After UCI competed in an exhibition tournament that featured the top teams from other nations like Brazil and China, Austin approached Speraw about making improvements to his game. He asked if he could watch tapes of himself playing.

Speraw was shocked. Here was a team that thrived off of preparation, yet their starting setter, Austin, had never seen himself play on tape.

Since picking up the game in high school, Austin learned to play from watching videos of professionals playing and listening to his coaches.

“I was always learning from what people told me and I hoped I was doing it right,” Austin said. “[Watching videos] is a good way to help fix your technique and you can see what other guys on your team are doing and what your opponents are doing. It makes you more mentally tough as a setter.”

Austin’s dedication to film study showed. UCI went on a nine-game win streak that started from his debut and ended with a 3-0 loss to UCLA on March 31.

Despite suffering the sweep, Austin played a key role during the first set in their rematch against the Bruins during the MPSF quarterfinals, helping UCI hit with a .579 success rate in comparison to UCLA’s .100. UCI won the match 3-1 and the rest of the team’s tournament run became history.

“The quality that makes him a good volleyball player and made our program a good program, is that he is dedicated to being a good volleyball player,” Speraw said. “He is very observant of how we train. He brought great contributions verbally. And the communication I had with him was unlike anything I had with a setter for a number of years. He was independent-minded and was real creative on how to run the offense.”

Speraw has played a major role in helping Austin become the player that he is.

“[I thank him for] Believing in me when others didn’t,” Austin said. “He always told me that I can handle it and it’s my type of thing to take.”

“I actually felt he was going to play well,” Speraw said. “I believed that all my players would play good volleyball in the final. I knew that he was prepared tactically. I knew that he was prepared to become the player he was.”

Austin has been hitting the gym and practicing on his game even after winning the championship. The prospect of winning individual awards next season does not faze him.

“I don’t care about individual awards or any of that,” Austin said. “It’s all about winning that national championship. That’s our ultimate goal. Every season we have to compete for that national championship.”

Austin is preparing himself to guide the team to win the national championship next season, not as a rookie, but as a battle-tested veteran.