From Tigers to Anteaters
During the summer of 2013, the University of Pacific decided to cut its men’s volleyball program by the end of the upcoming year as part of an initiative to reallocate its funding.
Despite numerous protests from the community, the decision stood, and nine months later, the Pacific men’s volleyball team would play its final match, a three-set loss to UC Irvine, at the Bren Events Center.
For University of Pacific players Thomas Hodges and Marty Ross however, the court where their careers as Tigers came to an end also marked the same court that where their careers as Anteaters would begin.
The announcement left the entire team in shock, as the new school year had only been in session for four days before they were informed of the program’s fate.
“Everybody was pretty devastated; it was pretty big news. A lot of people just committed to- just had it in their mind that they were going to be at that school for four years, and live out their college career there,” said Hodges, now a junior opposite. “And then just for it to be cut, and they had to choose whether to stay there with their friends or continue with volleyball also…”
For both Hodges and Ross, the commitments they made in order to play at Pacific cannot be understated. As a native of Melbourne, Australia, Hodges traveled over 8,000 miles to be at Pacific, which also marked his first time living away from home. Comparatively, Ross was only 2,000 miles away as a Frankfort, Illinois native, but the news proved to be just as impact as Ross’s family had recently moved to Sacramento, located only an hour north of Stockton.
“I started crying right away, it was devastating to me, I hadn’t seen myself leaving Pacific. I loved it, I played freshman year grew a really close bond with a lot of teammates, and I was really excited to be a part of something special cause we believed we could have done something special at Pacific,” said Ross. “And then hearing that you don’t have the opportunity, you have one year to put it all together, it was just really tough for guys that didn’t even see the court there.”
Determined to continue on with their collegiate careers, both players would once again undergo the meticulous, and often stressful, task of emailing and contacting other colleges in the hopes of being recruited.
Fortunately for Hodges and Ross, both players had some form of connection with UC Irvine that helped facilitate their recruitment into the program.
Both Ross and UC Irvine were already acquainted with one another- Ross was initially promised an official visit by then head coach John Speraw in 2013, but never received a response. Through his club coach, Ross later learned that the program didn’t have any scholarship money left for him- The remaining portion was given to a French import by the name of Kevin Tillie, who went to help UC Irvine win back-to-back national championships.
Hodge, on the other hand, originally had no intention of ever contacting UC Irvine, as he didn’t believe one of the nation’s top programs would hold any interest in him. It was only at the behest of Nick Goldsbrough-Reardon, a fellow Melbourne native and UCI alumnus who was also brought up through the Australian pipeline, that Hodge would reach out.
With glowing reviews given by Ross’s old club coach and Goldsbrough-Reardon in hands, Kniffin was confident enough in both the skillset and character of both players to offer them an official visit. Of course, the fact that he also had a soft spot for both players may have helped as well-
During his undergraduate years, Kniffin was cast in a similar position to Hodges and Ross. After concluding his freshman season at Loyola Marymount, the program was cut without warning, prompting Kniffin to spend two years at a community college before eventually finding his way to UC Irvine.
“Ultimately, it landed me in a great spot, so that was kind of my feeling going into [the recruiting process]. Gosh, silver lining, we got some kids that really want to play, thought they were going to have a collegiate experience, and they’re open again and the fact that they’re reaching out tells me that despite this experience and the program being pulled out from under them, they still have a passion for them,” said Kniffin. “That was enough to get them down here to visit campus and we spent a weekend with them to kind of get to know them both a little better, and it moved pretty quickly from there.”
As it turns out, the fact that Kniffin could relate to their plight also made the prospect of playing at UC Irvine all the more attractive for the two potential prospects.
“Something that really struck me about UC Irvine, and especially Coach Kniffin was that he went through the same process that [we] did,” said Ross. “He played at LMU, and their program got cut, and he didn’t know what to do either; then he came to Irvine, so we had that special connection with him.”
While Hodges and Ross shared the commonality of relocating from Stockton to Irvine, the two had remarkably different experiences in regards to adapting to their new school.
For Hodges, the transition may as well have been another stamp in his passport, as the 6’4 opposite has been to the likes of New Caledonia, India, Malaysia, Poland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Brazil, Italy, Serbia, Korea, and Japan during his travel with the Australian men’s national.
“Thomas is a little bit more worldly in terms of travel, he [has] lived away from home for much of his high school experience training with the Australian team, and even when he goes home in the summer, he’s not going home, he’s going back to the Australian training center,” said Kniffin. “Thomas’s life is on the road, he’s a journeyman volleyball player, and for Thomas, coaching him, he’s very intelligent…I don’t have a lot of concerns about Thomas. He just kind of plucks along.”
Plucking along appears to be an accurate representation of Hodge’s character, as demonstrated in the way with which he approaches tasks with a matter-of-fact attitude. A civil engineering major, Hodge notes that he spends the majority of the weekends holed up at a Starbucks, where he often studies from the 9 in the morning until closing.
“Civil engineering… it’s not easy, that’s for sure. I’m trying to fit it into four years as well, they usually suggest if you got a heavy load, doing it in five, and so, I’m not going to redshirt,” said Hodges. “I’m just going to do it in four years. Plus, in transferring, I lost a few classes, so it’s not easy that’s for sure, but if I stay on top of it, and do my studies, it’s manageable.”
For Ross, the transition to UC Irvine has been a difficult, and at times, painful one plagued by bouts of homesickness and frustration.
“When you have transfer students, it’s an interesting combination because they’re not freshman and yet they face a lot of the same challenges that freshman face. It’s hard to acclimate to a new environment; remember that Marty had gone from Chicago to Pacific, and then down to UC Irvine, so he never really got rooted in a college experience,” said Kniffin. “And just in fact as he was getting rooted at Pacific, what should’ve been his junior year, going into his junior year, he was uprooted and transplanted down here at UC Irvine.
“It takes some time to kind of acclimate to the culture, it’s a new circle of friends, it’s a new pace of work, it’s a new workload with the difference in class sizes and everything. There were a lot of adjustments going on and I just think that Marty has adjusted so well, it’s really fun to see him kind of in his element and, it’s been really fun to coach him and watch him grow.”
Having lived in Chicago his entire life, Ross openly embraced the idea of change and was welcoming of any new experiences he would encounter in Pacific.
Unfortunately, his best friend, Matt Lewinsky passed away during March of his freshman year in Pacific.
It was through Lewinsky that Ross was introduced to his core group of friends that he could come to rely on.
“That’s something I just really just strive for in my college experience. I think, once that wasn’t happening I went back to missing my friends from Chicago, but my family [had] moved out and couldn’t do anything,” said Ross. “I turned to Pacific and made a core group, and all of a sudden I come to Irvine, and it’s kind of like, I’m done changing. This sucks.”
Upon arriving at Irvine, Ross found himself wishing that he was back in Pacific. This sentiment was compounded by the fact that for the majority of the 2015 season Ross was relegated to supporting the team from the sidelines. Of UCI’s 2015 season that culminated with an appearance in the final four, Ross only appeared in a grand total of seven total sets.
“One of the reasons I did feel really upset last year, I kind of had it in my mind that I could do anything good or bad in practice, and I still wouldn’t affect the team too much,” said Ross. “It was kind of like, that was the thing that got me the most, it was like, it didn’t matter if I was on the team or not, they still would be doing well.”
For Ross, the frustration he endured proved to be an invaluable teaching moment. He has since worked his way into the starting rotation of the men’s volleyball team, and is the team leader in blocks with 1.27 per set, but still occasionally finds himself getting pulled out every now and then- However, Ross is no longer phased when he finds himself standing on the sidelines.
“I just grew into it, I have that realization now, I’m making an impact, contributing, [but] sometimes another person is the better one for the job, and I’m more mature in that sense where I can realize that, and I’m really glad I learned that lesson finally because, being in the real world it’s not going to be easy,” said Ross. “That’s also something [Kniffin’s] really good at, just having you mature, more than just volleyball skills, just life lessons. I’m so grateful for that.”
From Melbourne and Illinois to Stockton and finally Irvine, it certainly has been quite the journey for both Hodges and Ross.
“I love it here, I get to live on the beach, I get to play volleyball everyday, I get to study engineering which I want to do,” said Hodges. “I mean there’s great guys, great friends on the team.”
And while the Bren Events Center will always mark the final time the duo took to the court as Tigers, it’ll also always signify the beginning of several new friendships for the UCI men’s volleyball team.
“I’m really grateful for the experiences at UC Irvine, not just for continuing my career and going to a great school, but also the guys on the team,” said Ross. “They’re not the guys from Pacific, they’re not the guys from back home, but they’re the guys from Irvine, they play a different role in my life, and I’m really grateful for them as well.”