During last week’s decisive match-point in the fifth-set against the second ranked UCLA men’s volleyball team, UCI sophomore outside hitter Tucker Pikula stood situated in the backcourt, poised and vigilant.
An aggressive Anteater serve was successfully dug up by the Bruins, and now it was their turn to attack. The ball is set towards one of UCLA’s go-to hitters, Jake Arnitz, who easily clears the ball over two UCI blockers.
The shot looks to be a sure-kill, one that would bring the match back to deuce yet again, but Pikula had anticipated its trajectory. He lurches forward, and successfully digs the ball towards the waiting hands of freshman setter Dante Chakravorti.
Before the ball even had a chance to be set towards junior opposite Thomas Hodges, who proceeded to clinch the match off a cross-court put away, Pikula had already begun walking towards Hodges, both arms raised high above his head in triumph.
There was no doubt in his mind that his teammate’s swing was going to be a kill.
To head coach David Kniffin, Pikula’s actions wasn’t a demonstration of arrogance or conceit, but of faith. Faith in himself, faith in his teammates, faith that a struggling UCI men’s volleyball team still had life yet. Faith, that Kniffin had carried on with despite the shortcomings of the team’ thus far, faith that the team seemed to lack as of late.
“I don’t think that [faith] is something you flip on and off like a light switch, I think it’s on a dimmer. I think when we have a moment like that, it’s affirmation,” said Kniffin. “There’s something about that where you grab hold of some moment throughout that match and you go, ‘That’s what we want it to feel like.’”
“I think, more than the win, getting that [feeling] of playing at that level, reminds us that, okay, we’ve sustained some losses, but we’re certainly capable, and that is inspiring.”
It hasn’t been the most glamorous of seasons for the UCI men’s volleyball team. After beginning the season at No. 2 in the AVCA preseason rankings, the Anteaters now sit at No. 11 in the national polls with an overall record of 4-8 and 3-7 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). Furthermore, a series of untimely injuries to several starters – most notably All-American Tamir Hershko- has played no small part in the Anteater’s inability to win more than one match at a time.
Now, as the regular season nears the halfway mark, the Anteaters are slated for another pair of road matches, starting with No. 13 Cal State Northridge (8-5, 3-5 MPSF) tonight in the Matadome followed by a Friday night match-up against No. 1 Long Beach State (11-2, 8-2 MPSF) in the Walter Pyramid Friday.
For Kniffin, the team’s success from here on out is currently contingent on faith and an ability to play to the team’s strengths.
“There are two major areas of the game we’re focusing on. One is the belief component, that faith in the unseen, I understand that’s difficult for people to believe in things we can’t see, so I’ll take care of the belief part, which I’ve said before,” said Kniffin.
“Now the tangible piece for them, is [grabbing] a good understanding of what we actually have in front of us. What skills do we actually have, what can we actually do with those things [and] can we execute on those in a match setting?”
The question of faith was never in doubt for Kniffin, who held steadfast in his belief the team could beat the Bruins despite being swept by No. 10 UC Santa Barbara the previous night. Providing the players with actionable objectives to accomplish during their match against the Bruins however, proved to be a bit more challenging for the fourth-year head coach.
“Because I speak with such broad vision and maybe with vision that’s too far in the future, it makes the steps along the way seem almost overwhelming with the distance we would have to go,” said Kniffin. “So what I need to remember to do as a coach is hone in and give them actionable items after presenting a large vision.
“That’s a challenge for me, because that’s not how I’m wired.”
Such items manifested itself in the form of setting certain percentages for players to achieve throughout the match, whether it be in hitting, passing, or receiving.
Among the goals for the evening was having sophomore outside hitter Reid Dominquez log two kills out of every three balls he was set. The Orange, CA native went on to be sidelined at the start of the second after sustaining an injury, but not before logging a .667 hitting percentage on two kills, no errors, and three swings.
Dominquez was just one of several players to rise up to the challenge throughout night, as UCI’s trio of seniors all logged personal-bests to carry the team to victory. Outside hitter Kyle Russel, who played at starting opposite, notched 21 kills and 11 digs, while middle blocker Marty Ross had seven kills on .600 hitting to go alongside eight blocks.
Most notably for Kniffin, however, was the performance of Jason Agopian, who had 13 kills on .409 hitting and five blocks on the evening.
“He was almost unconscious in how he was playing the game […],” said Kniffin. “It’s maybe the first time in our program that I’ve seen a middle really kind of carry the team forward at times. We’ve had some exceptional middles in the program, but to see what Jason did…was neat to see.”
With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the Anteaters have their work cut out for them as they hope to right the ship back on course towards a national championship form in time for the MPSF Tournament.
“I do believe in how we’re operating, I have always said that we want to invite in adversity and [that] we do not want to ground ourselves in circumstances,” said Kniffin. “I feel like now I’m being tested, and it’s easy to say those things when things are going well, and so, if truly we believe that, and I do, then I have to stay the course there.”
And as for the players themselves, it might be safe to say that their faith is now dialed up to be just a smidgeon higher than it was last week. Maybe it’s the fact the team had a four-day weekend ahead of them, but Kniffin did note that the players did seem a bit more energetic than usual during their weightlifting session last Friday.