1-on-1 with Connor Hughes

Connor Hughes. If you haven’t heard that name, chances are you haven’t kept up with not only UC Irvine men’s volleyball, but NCAA men’s volleyball as a whole. Connor Hughes has been a crucial player on UCI’s team that has captured the title of two time NCAA men’s volleyball champions.

The six-foot-six outside hitter from Costa Mesa has always played volleyball. With some basketball experience in high school, Hughes explains how he comes from a volleyball family, his mom having played in high school and growing up playing volleyball with his sister on the beach.

UCI was not Hughes’ first choice for college when he was getting recruited because it was so close to home. He had offers from UCLA, Stanford, Long Beach, and more, but chose UCI because he fell in love with UCI’s atmosphere. “UCI volleyball, it’s just something special. I didn’t get that feel from other schools,” Hughes said.

Hughes explained that the team chemistry was one of the main reasons why he chose to play at UCI over other colleges.  “We’re always together,” he said. “Most of the guys live in Newport and that’s a huge plus.”

Hughes has been at UCI for five years, redshirting his second year. “That was really hard to do,” he said. “It’s hard to stay on the side and watch when you’ve had a taste of play.” But Hughes admits that redshirting his second year was also the best decision he’s ever made, because the two years that followed, the team won national championships. He also admits that redshirting, which was a mutual decision between him and the coach, allowed him to improve his game. “My game wasn’t as refined,” Hughes said. “That [year] was a huge learning experience for me.”

Hughes has played for two very different coaches, here at UCI. His first three years, he played for John Speraw, and these past two years, for head coach David Kniffin. “Speraw was a very detail-oriented coach,” Hughes said. “But Kniffin is a player’s coach. He wants us to be all around good players, beyond our positions.”

Hughes admits that Coach Kniffin is very open minded in letting his players make their own decisions during a game and that he’s the kind of coach who you could talk about anything with.

The team chemistry is not only vibrant amongst the players, but with the coaches as well. The strong build of the team is one of the many reasons why it’s going to be so hard for Hughes to graduate.

“Volleyball is basically your life. It’s going to be so hard when it’s over,” Hughes said.  “You put your life’s work into it, and then it’s all over.” Following graduation, Hughes hopes to play professionally in Europe.

Reflecting upon the team’s two-time national championships, Hughes says that the two teams they took on were so different. For the 2012 national championships, the team took on USC, and for the 2013, BYU. “The way we approached each game was different,” Hughes said. With last year’s championship, UCI was the first team with a two-time national championship since UCLA in 1995 and 1996. Following last year’s championship, Hughes was named NCAA’s Most Outstanding Player, registering 11 kills, two digs and four blocks against BYU.

Hughes admits that this year was a huge learning process for the team. “We learned to play cleaner and crisper volleyball, trying to reach our peak,” Hughes said.

The team wrapped up its regular season on March 12, beating Pacific 3-0. As for what’s next for the team, Hughes has great hope that the team will make it far in the NCAA tournament. “Luckily, we have the playoff experience of going far,” Hughes said. “We’ve done it for the past two years.”

Along with playing for UCI, Hughes has also been on the USA under 26, beach volleyball team. “That has been a great experience,” Hughes said.  “I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel to so many places — China, Brazil, Russia [and so many others].”

Whatever the future may hold for Connor Hughes, it’s undeniable that he has made his mark at UCI. With two national championships in his pocket, Hughes is hopeful and confident that soon he’ll have a third.