During the UCI men’s volleyball banquet held to honor the team’s four graduating seniors in March, Coach David Kniffin made it clear that a large portion of the program’s hopes for a fifth national championship rests on the shoulders of Zack La Cavera.
“I’m putting your cards on the table for you,” said Kniffin while introducing La Cavera. “Zack, we’re expecting great things out of you.”
A moment to look back upon his accomplishments with the team thus far in front of family and friends had now turned into a rally of what was still left to be accomplished for La Cavera.
Never one to act without reason, Kniffin is well aware of the pressure he put on La Cavera, but is steadfast in his belief that his starting opposite will perform when called upon to.
“If anybody can handle the pressure it’s Zack,” said Kniffin. “He always rises up to the big moment.”
According to Kniffin, La Cavera is the ultimate team player, who in prior seasons has allowed the more experienced players to lead the team with the belief that it was not his place to step up for the team.
“He’s the kind of person you want at the head of your team or the head of your family because he’ll make sure to give credit everywhere else first and he’ll make sure that the goal keeps moving forward if that’s what it needs to do,” said Coach Kniffin. “He won’t step up and steal the spotlight unless that’s what absolutely needed for us to be the most successful team we can be.”
Now in the midst of his final season at UC Irvine, La Cavera, after a year of having Kniffin talk about his potential, is more readily assuming the mantle of the team’s marquee player.
“When you think about it, in the whole scheme of things, (Kniffin) knows what he can expect from me, he knows that I can play a lot better than I have,” said La Cavera. “That’s when I got to realize I got to be able to think that about myself and put that into practice.”
Growing up in Huntington Beach, La Cavera’s first exposure to volleyball came about in sixth grade, as the mother of his brother’s friend was a coach. Having played soccer since five however, volleyball remained a secondary interest to him, until a growth spurt led to flare ups with his knee, causing him to miss the second season of soccer his freshman year at Mater Dei High School.
With his interest in the sport waning as well, La Cavera joined the frosh-soph volleyball team and was intrigued enough to eventually quit soccer altogether in favor of his newfound passion.
Come sophomore year, La Cavera started playing club volleyball and soon enough began receiving recruiting letters from colleges the summer before his junior year. It wasn’t until he began talking to coaches that he realized he had a future in the sport.
Initially, UC Irvine was not a top pick for La Cavera due to its close proximity to his home. However, the success of the program in capturing the NCAA Championships in 2007 and 2009 and elite coaching staff proved compelling enough for the young prospect to pay a visit and eventually sign with the program.
“I realized I could still have the freedoms of maybe living away from home but still really benefit from being able to go home,” said La Cavera. “I really liked all of the players, the team camaraderie is, one of the top in the MPSF, I love the team camaraderie and unity we have in this program.”
Another pivotal aspect for La Cavera was seeing Connor Hughes, a teammate he looked up to at Mater Dei, forego schools with more volleyball programs such as USC and UCLA to sign with UCI.
“Seeing such a high caliber athlete like that choose UC Irvine was like wow, that really means something with the program,” said La Cavera.
Entering the program as a freshman in 2011 was a humbling experience for La Cavera, who was still riding off the high of leading Mater Dei to its first CIF Title, earning gold at the Junior National Olympics, and earning OC Player of the Year honors. Despite his accomplishments, La Cavera quickly learned he would have to prove himself from the ground up as an Anteater.
“No one here in college is like, ‘Oh man, that’s the guy that won CIF,’” said La Cavera. “You (have) a lot guys that were the player of the year in their league, that won their respective championships too.”
With the starting role filled by All-American Carson Clarke, La Cavera saw limited action off the bench, but found satisfaction in being able to contribute to the success of the team’s run as national champions.
“Even though I didn’t play, obviously doing what I can in the practices and doing what I could’ve in the matches that I did go in it was quite rewarding,” said La Cavera.
His sophomore year proved to even more rewarding, as La Cavera saw starting minutes and logged 11 kills on an astounding .476 hitting percentage in the finals of the NCAA tournament to help the Anteaters to a second consecutive national championship.
“I’m pretty proud of myself in how I was able to perform and be able to play for my teammates and coaching staff and (represent) UCI,” said La Cavera.
Unfortunately, the complacency of winning two national champs and the loss of several senior leaders hampered the team’s bid at a three-peat during La Cavera’s junior year, as the team fell to eventual runner up Stanford in the quarterfinals of the MPSF Tournament.
These factors led to a stressful season for La Cavera, who tried his best to step up but was reluctant to in the presence of more experienced players on the team.
“I have this issue where I’m pretty tough on myself, especially when I know I’m not one of the more experienced guys on the teams,” said La Cavera. “I’ll typically not encourage myself to be more vocal, I think that showed in my play and my presence on the court.”
Fortunately, confidence is no longer an issue for La Cavera, who gained international experience prior to the start of fall last year by playing for the U.S. team in the Pan American Cup in Mexico, where he led the U.S. to the finals after a tournament-high 20 kills in the semifinals against Puerto Rico.
“(Playing in the Pan Am Cup) really helped with my self-confidence and my self-identity of being able to be the guy on the team,” said La Cavera. “Obviously, not the sole guy, but one of the guys that is necessary on this team. I think that’s really helped with my leadership.”
La Cavera’s leadership was on full display last week, when he rallied the team to a 3-1 victory over Long Beach State. After winning the first two sets, the Anteaters began to falter, dropping the third set and playing sluggishly in the fourth. After trailing 5-9 in the fourth set, La Cavera called a time-out and had some choice words for his team’s lackluster level of play, a task usually relegated to assistant coach Mark Presho. His frustration resonated with the team, and sparked an 8-4 run that tied the game 13-13 before eventually overtaking the Beach 25-20.
Though La Cavera can be the intense when the team requires him to, he can often be found cracking jokes or breaking out his infamous shoulder sway on nights out with his teammates and friends.
“I can be very serious when we need it, but I really like to keep things light-hearted especially if it’s a very stressful situation,” said La Cavera.
As devoted as La Cavera is to volleyball, the Huntington Beach native understands being a student comes first, and is equally as diligent in the classroom, earning MPSF Scholar Athlete honors sophomore year. Additionally, his tendency to put others first is reflected in his major in political science with an emphasis in international relations.
“I really wanted to have a major where I could represent something that’s a lot bigger than me, I’ve always been like that, whether it’s representing my family, high school, college, or volleyball team,” said La Cavera.
Holding a strong interest in international affairs, La Cavera looks forward to playing professional before returning to states to attend grad school with his savings.
“I don’t want to try and make volleyball my life after I graduate, I really want to try and do something [else] with my life,” said La Cavera.
La Cavera’s strong work ethic and will to succeed is largely fueled by his desire to show his appreciation for the sacrifices and hardships his parents endured to provide him with the life he has been able to live thus far. Growing up in rugged households, La Cavera’s parents didn’t have the opportunity to play organized, having to work in order to make ends meet and financially support themselves at an early age.
“There’s a lot of times where I realize I really don’t know the hardships (they’ve been through),” said La Cavera. “That’s a huge reason why I try and work so hard, I want to be able to show them my appreciation and show them what they’ve been giving (me) isn’t just going down the drain.”
Thanks to the sacrifice and commitment of his parents to his development, La Cavera attended several private Catholic schools in his upbringing. Due to the strict dress codes and rules regulating his hair length and facial hair throughout high school, La Cavera has wasted no time in exercising his new found freedom since coming to UC Irvine.
Throughout his years as an Anteater La Cavera has constantly experimented with his appearance, growing out his hair beard one season and shaving them the next at whim. One aspect of his appearance that has remained constant, a bright green wristband that reads Cuck Fancer.
A non-profit organization dedicated to helping young adults diagnosed with cancer, Cuck Fancer reached out to the men’s volleyball team in hopes of helping promote their fundraiser. Through social media, players pledged to shave their heads if the non-profits goal of $2000 was raised.
For La Cavera, whose teammates had their lives affected by cancer and who himself lost his grandmother to cancer, the decision was a no brainer.
“Being able to support something than volleyball, cause (at times we feel like we’re just here to expand the athletics) around UCI, was kinda cool because we were able to represent something else for a change,” said La Cavera.
Now playing in the final stretch of his senior season, La Cavera will be representing the men’s volleyball team for a while longer as he looks to add a third national championship to accompany his wristband.
During the most crucial moments of the matches yet to come in the post-season, all eyes will be on La Cavera step up and continue to validate the greatness that Kniffin sees in him. Unlike last year however, the senior starter definitely won’t be afraid to shine in the spotlight.
A month earlier, while leading the Anteaters to back to back wins against BYU in Utah, La Cavera’s impressive performance was a hot topic of conversation amongst the commentators, who christened a litany of nicknames, from “Frodo Baggins” to “Prince Charming” on account of his clean shaven face and flowing locks.
Upon watching the replay of the match and listening to the commentary, there was one nickname that stood out to La Cavera.
“The alpha male, that’s the one I liked the most,” said La Cavera with a smile.