Regarding the UCI men’s volleyball team performance throughout the 2016 season thus far, head coach David Kniffin is undeniably disappointed.
After beginning the year at No. 2, UCI now finds itself at the bottom of the polls at No. 14 and are fighting just to qualify for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament, a far-cry from last season where the team was a contender for the NCAA championship before bowing out in the Final Four. To date, the team has already accumulated more losses (18) than they had in the previous two seasons combined (16).
And during Saturday’s practice at Crawford Hall, a day before the team faces a similarly struggling USC (7-16) team, Kniffin made that clear. But simultaneously, he also made it clear that his expectations for the team had not changed, and neither has the team’s end goal of winning a NCAA Championship.
For UCI to do so however, will involve the unlikeliest of scenarios to play out. In order for the Anteaters to claim the NCAA championship, they would have to win at least two of their remaining three conference matches to first qualify for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, advance through all three-rounds to secure an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, where they would likely have to make their way to the finals through a play-in match.
That equates to a total of eight wins- meaning that the Anteaters (8-18) would need to match the numbers of wins they have accumulated throughout the entire season thus far in the next five weeks.
But Kniffin has no interest in using those moments as a reference points for how the remainder of the season will turn out, but rather as moments of learning. Back in January, when the team first began their descent down the national rankings, Kniffin held steadfast in his belief towards the team’s potential and talent, noting that the end goal of winning a national championship had not changed.
Since then, that belief still has not waivered.
“We don’t get to stop believing once we believe in someone and their potential; I think we have to keep believing in that. It’s hard to live in a world where belief is so often based on things that are seen versus things that are dreamt about or unseen,” said Kniffin. “But that’s where I want to be because the alternative is to go forward and say, based on what we’ve done so far, this is as good as we’re going to be.
“I can’t accept that. I believe the potential is still there, I do feel disappointed in what some of the guys have done so far, and how they’ve performed and developed, but similar to being a parent being disappointed, I don’t think the belief or the love ever stops, it’s just a parenting moment.”
As a mentor, friend, and father-figure, one key principle Kniffin has been trying to teach his players is the concept of staying mentally steady, of not getting caught up in the highs or lows of the game. Whether it’s celebrating a kill or lamenting an attack error, it’s crucial that players have a short memory between points.
For proof, the team doesn’t need to look any farther than 2013- where UCI cemented its status as a top-tier program by winning a back-to-back national championship against top-seeded Brigham-Young University. Had the team decided to predicate their performance in the finals based on what they accomplished thus far, then it would have been the Cougars emerging victorious from Pauley Pavilion. After all, BYU did defeat UCI on both occasions between their two regular season meetings.
Additionally, that 2013 team was a prime example of Kniffin’s philosophy of not getting overwhelmed by the larger task at hand, but rather taking each point as it comes. In their victory over the Cougars, the Anteaters battled back from a 4-11 deficit in the second set and erased three match-points in the third set after trailing 21-24 to pull off an unprecedented sweep. Following the match, Connor Hughes, who was named Most Outstanding Player, affirmed as much in a post-game interview, noting “Our whole motto for this season was play point-to-point.”
However, as the players on this year’s roster are coming to find out, understanding mental toughness and being mentally tough are two different beasts altogether.
“I think the core of guys that were on the court from last year’s team had been in a national championship match and had been contributors in that. The guys that are on this year’s team, carrying over from last year’s team, were in the wake of those players […] that were breaking the headwind for these guys,” said Kniffin. “The guys that are now out on the court, are experiencing how hard that is to be lead geese.
“Last year, they contributed, and worked hard, but they were drafting. That’s a whole different load, and a whole different style of work than it is to be the ones that need to lead the charge…I would say the bulk of these guys have not been tested until this year, most of them were riding the waves of guys that came before them, so now they’re being tested and we’re seeing how they respond, and they still have time to respond.”
It’s impossible to ascertain when the team will respond, whether it be tonight against the Trojans in a must-win situation to keep their postseason hopes alive and into one of the unlikeliest of runs, in the season after, or in the years to come.
What is for sure, however, is that when the Anteaters do respond, it will be by taking it one point at a time.