Can’t Rain On This Parade
UCI: Three days after winning a second straight national title, the men’s volleyball holds a celebration inside Crystal Cove Auditorium.
A morning downpour cancelled the outdoor portion of the championship rally for the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team on May 7, but the festivities were taken inside the Crystal Cove Auditorium at the Student Center. Last year, the team arrived on a bus, many wearing sunglasses to fight the sun and a hangover. This time, the team filed through a slim doorway leading to a back entrance from a parking lot. A win was a win, though, and the celebration went on without a hitch.
“We have to continue meeting like this,” Chancellor Michael A. Drake said, drawing laughter from a packed auditorium. “After winning a championship last year, to come back and do it again really takes dedication and motivation. For [Coach] David Kniffin to come back into this program for his first year as the head coach and to maintain that level of play was really remarkable.”
Sitting on Chancellor Drake’s left with his legs crossed, a little more relaxed than he was in the tense 3-0 win over BYU just three days earlier, Kniffin looked up at Chancellor Drake standing at the podium with glassy-eyes and said, “Thank you” as another round of applause came over the crowd.
“We’ll celebrate today and then start working in a couple of days to get one more (ring) for the thumb,” Drake said with a tan bowtie hanging over his commemorative national championship shirt, referencing the four championship rings men’s volleyball has earned in the past seven seasons.
After longtime public address announcer Rob Espero referenced the team’s appearance on ESPN’s top 10 list and highlighted individual accomplishments for the players throughout the season, Coach Kniffin addressed the audience.
“I think our first order of business is to thank you for what you’re doing here today,” Kniffin said to Chancellor Drake and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Susan Bryant. “We will work on getting you a thumb ring after a few days of rest.”
Kniffin deflected attention away from himself, stating that his contribution was just two percent of the puzzle.
“A lot of this was about bringing in a coach to carry on,” Kniffin said. “There are so many of you who have a piece of this. The title was decided by seven points. That’s razor-thin.”
Kniffin, who turns 33 in August, was poised beyond his years on the sidelines during the national championship. He explained that his father, watching on ESPNU back home in Chico, told him that he looked like he was in a zone and on a mission during the title match.
“I’m still waking up to the moment,” Kniffin said.
“Someone asked me if I was enjoying it or if I felt like I was at a boring family reunion. I’ve never been so into a match in my life. I was in the zone.”
Kniffin plans every detail of his team’s game plan from the first serve to match point, to the team dinner afterwards, but he mistakenly stepped away from the podium without introducing the next speaker, and then returned with a smile.
“I’m not executing my game plan here,” Kniffin, a former UCI philosophy major said before introducing his senior setter, Chris Austin.
Austin became the first African-American setter to set a team to a national championship in 2012, and added to his accolades with a second consecutive championship this season. After transferring from Long Beach City College, Austin went two for two, earning back-to-back titles in his short stint as Irvine’s setter.
“This is a sad feeling knowing that all of this is over. I hope you guys carry on the culture that we’ve built,” Austin said, glancing at the players behind him in four-legged chairs with a “Congratulations to the 2013 Men’s Volleyball National Champions” banner hanging above their heads. “The number one wish I have for you guys is to have continued success in developing players and people.”
After Espero signed off, the team took group photos with Drake and Bryant, and then sat at an extended table to sign autographs for fans for about a half hour.
Following a series of interviews, Coach Kniffin was approached by three students holding banners.
Kniffin, having slept just a few hours in the past few nights while reliving a championship match and season that he refers to as “surreal,” set his umbrella down, took the signs and got down on the ground to sign his name on a flat surface.
“Were you ladies at the match on Saturday?” he asked.
“No, we had to work at the Bren,” one of the girls replied.
Kniffin capped his pen and smiled, took a few photos and said, “Thank you for your support.”
“I finally get to start thinking about what a fine ride that was,” Kniffin said in reflection. “This was the hardest year of my life, learning to manage 18 personalities, and I didn’t realize it’d be so taxing. My staff reminded me throughout the year to take time away for myself and I need to learn better self-management and not get consumed.”
The morning after winning the national championship, Kniffin took a hike up to Saddleback Mountain as rain poured down from the skies.
“It was as peaceful as it gets,” Kniffin said. “I pinched myself and said, ‘Did we really just win the national championship?’”