As UCI men’s volleyball head coach David Kniffin is learning, be careful what you wish for.
For the fourth-year head coach, an ideal scenario would not involve a traditional starting line-up based on a rotation of seven to eight players. Rather, a unique line-up would be deployed for each opponent, with players fielded based on who is best equipped to handle an opposing player from the other side of the net.
“It requires that we’re able to be flexible and adaptable, because that’s ultimately how I like to play the game. I like to bend with an opponent, move and explore weak spots, run into something that is an obstacle for us, and figure out a way to go or around or through it,” said Kniffin. “If we play [a] rigid, kind-of-fixed volleyball, with a fixed line-up all year, I think we lose some of that flexibility.”
Thus far in the season, Anteaters line-up has been anything but fixed, as a wealth of players have rotated in and out of the team’s starting lineup on a near match-to-match basis. The variation of starters, however, has not been precipitated by Kniffin’s vision, but rather a combination of performance issues and untimely injuries that has left the team with limited options at their disposal.
This instability has yielded disappointing results, as the No. 13 Anteaters now stand at an overall record of 4-10 and 3-9 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). For the program, the season marks vast turnaround from last year’s success, where the team finished with a 27-5 record and made a postseason run to the semi-finals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament before falling to eventual champions Loyola-Chicago in the semifinals.
Now, a year removed from winning the MPSF Tournament as the tournament’s top-seed in 2015, the Anteaters, ranked ninth in the MPSF, are aiming to first qualify for the tourney by earning a top eight finish in the 12-team conference.
Yet, in order to so, the Anteaters will not only need to be able to compete at a high-level for the remainder of the season, but to do so consistently- a quality that has eluded them thus far.
“The one thing that we’ve been is consistently inconsistent; that is the differentiator between the teams that are in the middle or bottom of the pack and the teams that are in the top,” said Kniffin. “It’s not the potential, because I think the potential is high for probably 10 or 11 teams in the MPSF, but it’s who will perform consistently that will be at the top.”
Perhaps no better display of the team’s inconsistency can be found than in UCI’s performances before and after their five-set upset over then No. 2 UCLA at the Pauley Pavilion. Prior to beating the Bruins, the Anteaters had suffered losses to unranked Cal Baptist and No. 10 UC Santa Barbara, losing by scores of 3-1 and 3-0 respectively. In the week after playing UCLA, the team appeared to have regressed as they proceeded to fall to then No. 13 Cal State Northridge in four-sets and top-ranked Long Beach State in a sweep on the road.
In the losses, some of the few positive takeaways for the team were the return of setter Michael Saeta and libero Dillon Hoffman from injury. Howbeit, as it turns out, reintroducing a player back into the line-up comes with the same adjustment pains posed by losing the player in the first place.
“It’s been very difficult for us to develop a constant footing, because we’ve had so many changes, and sometimes it’s injury, and sometimes it’s just guys not performing at a level that’s high enough,” said Kniffin. “I like to allow them time to gel and come together, and I’ll be very curious to see if they’re able to gain their footing. It’s been such an adverse environment with all the circumstances, that it’s been very challenging for them to gel.”
The team’s ability to mesh alongside each other will be tested yet again when the Anteaters return home to host a pair of conference match-ups at the Bren Events Center this weekend. UCI will begin their home stand with No. 3 Stanford tonight, followed by No. 10 Pepperdine the following evening.
Off the heels of a sweep against UC San Diego, the Cardinal (13-2, 11-2 MPSF) have currently won their last six outings and are tied with Long Beach State for first place in the conference. The Waves (6-5, 5-5), on the other hand, have lost their last three matches.
As has been the trend in the season, the Anteaters are likely to take to the court with a different line-up than the ones they presented in their first meetings with the visiting teams. It is currently unknown whether All-American junior opposite Tamir Hershko will be cleared to play this weekend. Hershko, who led the Anteaters with 18 kills apiece against the Cardinal and Waves back in January, has been sidelined with injury, having last played on Jan. 30.
While the status of Hershko may be just one of several other uncertainties that has inhibited the team from coming together as a more cohesive collective, that doesn’t mean that the Anteaters are bereft of any sense of unity altogether.
“The one thing that [we’re] gelling on right now is, I think we’re collectively dissatisfied with where we are in our conference standings,” said Kniffin. “So, if that’s the first of many coming together points, then I feel like we can be in an okay spot still.”