With the start of the 2015-2016 season less than a week away, the UCI men’s volleyball team will soon have another chance to stake their name atop the Division 1 rankings after having their season come to a premature end in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament last year.
Under the helm of returning head coach David Kniffin, who guided the team to a national title in 2013 and was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Coach of the Year last season, the team has continually sought to achieve greatness, and 2015-2016 looks to be no exception with the Anteaters taking the number two ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National and MPSF preseason polls.
The Anteaters concluded the 2014-2015 season with a 28-5 overall record, which tied reigning NCAA Champions Loyola-Chicago for the most wins in the nation, and ended the year with a final ranking of No. 3. UCI held a 19-3 record in the MPSF, with their only two other losses coming against NCAA finalists Loyola and Lewis University.
Having boasted one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, the Anteaters finished the year as the leader in hitting percentage (.350) and kills (13.86). UCI was also second nationally in assists with a 13.09 average, and led the MPSF in serving with an average of 1.48 aces per set.
In March, the Anteaters also earned the distinction of being the first team since 2013 to defeat BYU on consecutive nights at the Smith Fieldhouse, snapping the Cougars’ 36-match win streak at home in the process.
Fresh Faces in the Mix
Despite losing four starters who each provided valuable leadership on the court, the Anteaters return a strong foundation of talent to build upon, most notably All-Americans Tamir Hershko and Jason Agopian,
Undoubtedly, a critical aspect of the team’s success will be contingent on their ability to fill the void left behind by All-American first teamers Zack La Cavera and Michael Brinkley.
La Cavera, who has since gone to play professionally in Poland, was an integral part to UCI’s success last season as the team’s go-to player. Honored as the 2015 MPSF Player of the Year, the opposite was the MPSF leader in kills (468), points (565), and aces (44). La Cavera posted back-to-back career highs of 25 and 26 kills in the semifinals and finals of the MPSF Tournament against USC and Pepperdine respectively.
Currently, the position is slated to be filled by junior Thomas Hodges or redshirt freshman Karl Apfelbach.
Hodges, who transferred from the University of Pacific following the termination of its volleyball program in 2013, did not record a single hitting error last season, logging a .556 hitting percentage (10-0-18) in 20 sets off the bench. During his freshman year playing at Pacific, Hodges was named to the All-Freshman team and received All-MPSF honors.
Due to redshirting last season, Apfelbach has yet to be tested at the collegiate level. A high school standout from Wisconsin, Apfelbach was named an AVCA All-American in 2014 and to Volleyball Magazine’s “Fab 50” list. However, Apfelbach’s height may be what distinguishes him from others; at 6’8 stands a full four-inches taller than both La Cavera and Hodges.
Arguably, the more daunting task of the two will be replacing Brinkley as libero, as UCI has had no trouble fielding suitable attackers on the court in recent memory. A starter throughout all four years of his undergraduate career, Brinkley helped the team win a national title in 2012 as a true freshman and again in 2013. Brinkley ranks second-all time in career digs at UCI with 1,099, and is the only Anteater ever to earn three first team All-American distinctions.
Possible candidates for the position include junior Dillon Hoffman and freshman David Parker. Hoffman saw action in 23 sets last season, where he recorded a total of 22 digs and six assists. Due to redshirting, Parker did not play in 2015, but holds a notable high school resume. At Whitney High School, his team was CIF finalists in 2013 and 2014, and he was named the Athlete of the Year in 2014.
Players to Watch
OH, Sr., Kyle Russell, Del Oro HS Traditionally, it isn’t until a player’s senior year at UCI that they’re given a chance to fully shine, and standing at 6-foot-9, Russell looks primed to continue that tradition. Heralded by BYU commentators as a player worthy of sharing the mantle of the team’s “alpha male” alongside La Cavera last season, Russell is a player the team will likely turn to during the crucial moments of a match. In spite of sitting out the latter half of the season, Russell finished the season with the third most kills on the team (218), and as a conference leader in aces with 32. Russell was recently named to Off the Block’s 2016 Karch Kiraly Award watch list, an award that recognizes the nation’s best Division I-II outside hitter during the regular season.
OPP, Jr., Tamir Hershko, Mosinzon Hod Ha’Sharon With celebrations equally as explosive as his swings, Hershko finished second on the team with 3.56 kills per set, good for fifth-highest in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). Hershko also boasted a .348 hitting percentage, which placed him second among all outside hitters, fifteenth overall in conference. In addition to being named first-team All-America and All-MPSF, Hershko earned two MPSF Player of the Week awards and was the MVP at the Hawai’i Outrigger Resorts Invitational.
MB, Sr., Jason Agopian, Deer Valley HS A strong read blocker, Agopian led the team in blocks with a 0.95 average per set, and his .402 hitting percentage ranked fourth-best in the conference. An MPSF first-teamer, Agopian’s output of 292.5 points total points on the season was third best on the team, behind Hershko’s 496.5. Alongside Hershko, Agopian was named to the 2016 Off the Block Preseason All-American first team.
S, Jr., Michael Saeta, Pasadena Poly HS
Having started in 27 out of 33 games last season, Saeta averaged 8.53 assists, 1.07 digs, and 0.36 blocks per set. A dangerous server, Saeta had 38 aces on the season, tying him with Hershko for second-most on the team. Saeta earned MPSF Player of the Week honors after quarterbacking UCI to sweeps over UCLA and UCSB, and had a career-high 54 assists in a five-set loss to Pepperdine in the regular season.
MB, Jr., Andrew Benz, Esperanza HS Benz hit for .509 in 2015, and earned MPSF All-Tournament honors after totaling 16 kills and 10 blocks. During the regular season, Benz logged a career-high 11 kills and a team-high four block assists to help the ‘Eaters rally back from a 0-2 deficit against USC on the road.
Teams to Watch
Brigham Young University (BYU) The Cougars are currently the favorites to win the national championship, having claimed the No. 1 spot in both the AVCA National and MPSF preseason polls. BYU received 13 of 20 first-place votes in the AVCA poll, and eight of 12 in the MPSF poll. Last season, BYU finished fifth in the MPSF conference, and fell to USC in a close five-set match during the MPSF tournament semifinals. Following what was considered a rebuilding year in 2015, the Cougars return five starters from last year’s lineup, including All-MPSF selections Jake Langlois, Brenden Sanders, and Matt Underwood. Most notably, 2013 AVCA Newcomer of the Year and starting opposite Ben Patch returns to the roster after a two-year absence to complete his LDS mission following his freshman season. Patch garnered nearly every collegiate volleyball accolade possible as a true freshman including being named first-team All-American, but may be most remembered by members of ‘Eater nation for the time he dropped a record 35 kills against UCI at the Bren Events Center in 2013.
Loyola-Chicago The Ramblers ended the Anteater’s championship aspirations with a sweep in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and are coming off back-to-back NCAA national championships. Loyola came in just below UCI at third in the AVCA preseason poll, despite earning six first-place votes while the Anteaters received none. Loyola will be forced to attempt a three-peat without the services of National Player of the Year and two-time All-American Thomas Jaeschke, who forwent his senior year to play professionally overseas. Nonetheless, the Ramblers are still a formidable team to be reckoned with, as they return five starters from last year’s national championship team. Among the squad’s returning ranks are AVCA Newcomer of the Year Jeff Jendryk and AVCA Second-Team All-American Peter Hutz. Jendryk was the Most Outstanding Player at the NCAA Tournament after recording 17 kills and nine blocks in the championship match, while Hutz had the second most assists per set (11.44) nationally in the regular season.
Long Beach State (LBSU) After acquiring one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, the 49ers are starting the season ranked No. 4 in both the AVCA and MPSF preseason polls. LBSU finished seventh in the MPSF last season with a respectable 15-13 record. All six starters from last year are set to return, two of whom received All-MPSF honors. Senior middle blocker Taylor Gregory headlines the group, as he was the top blocker in the MPSF and second-best nationally, logging 1.51 blocks per set, and was named a Volleyball Magazine All-American. All LBSU’s incoming freshman class, three were selected to the U.S. Youth National Training Team. Two players likely to contribute immediately are outside hitter TJ DeFalco and setter Josh Tuaniga, whom were each named AVCA All-Americans CIF-Southern Section Division 1 Players of the Year, and co-MVPs in their league. DeFalco is hailed by Volleyball Magazine as the No. 1 Recruit of the incoming class, and was the youngest player named to the 2015 U.S. World League preliminary roster. DeFalco and Tuaniga led Huntington Beach High School to a 80-0 record in the past two seasons as well as two CIF titles.
UC Los Angeles (UCLA) A program that consistently draws the nation’s top players, UCLA placed fifth in the AVCA preseason poll and is projected to finish third in the MPSF. After finishing with a 13-14 record in 2015 with one of the league’s youngest starting lineups, the Bruins are poised to be a real threat in the league now that its players have gathered a year of experience under their belts. One of the Bruin’s biggest weapons will be sophomore outside hitter JT Hatch, who was named the MPSF Freshman of the Year in 2015 and led the team in both kills and points. Hatch was also recently named to the Off the Block Preseason All-American second team earlier in December. Incoming freshman Micah Ma’a is regarded as the top setter of the incoming class, and looks to be a cornerstone of the program for the next four years. A three-sport athlete at Punahou High School, Ma’a helped his high school to four state championships and was named the State Volleyball Player of the Year in 2015.
UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) The Gauchos finished ninth in the 2015 season with a 17-10 record after falling to Pepperdine in the quarterfinals of the MPSF Tournament. Starting at the setter position will be Jonah Seif, who holds several All-MPSF nods and is a two-time AVCA All-American. Seif’s 0.34 aces per game was the second best among MPSF setters, while his 2.26 digs per game topped the conference leaderboards among setters. Another noteworthy player is sophomore libero Hayden Boehle/ Boelhe led all conference freshmen with 2.18 digs per set, earned a All-MPSF Honorable Mention, and was named to the 2015 All-MPSF Freshman team.
Ohio State (OSU) The Buckeyes are ranked second in the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association preseason polls (below Loyola) and sixth in the AVCA poll, which is their highest preseason ranking since 2000. Starting at the outside hitter position will be sophomore Nicolas Szerszen, who was named conference Freshman of the Year and an AVCA All-America honorable mention recipient.
A foundation of Kniffin’s coaching has always been cultivating the mental strength of his players, a priority that’s clearly reflected in the team’s challenging schedule.
The Anteaters had one of the toughest schedules in the nation last year, and look to be repeating that feat once again. Of the 31 matches scheduled, 18 of them will be taking place away from home.
UCI will play eight matches apiece in both January and February, but the most grueling part of their schedule is set to take place in March. The ‘Eaters have 10 matches scheduled during that month, and only one of them will be taking place at home. Over 16 days, the team will face six opponents in five different states. After facing Ohio State and Lewis at the Walter Pyramid, the ‘Eaters will travel across the country to Ball State, Penn State, and George Mason before flying back for back-to-back matches against Hawai’i at the Stan Sheriff Center.
As noted by Kniffin, “You can’t achieve mental toughness in a petri dish of comfort.”