It’s a saying that’s as simple as it is cliché: playing point-to-point.
Treat each point as its own entity, its own game in of itself.
And for the UCI men’s volleyball team, this mantra has been a tried but true formula for success, so much so that the words “Point-to-Point” are engraved on the team’s 2013 NCAA championship rings.
And amidst a season plagued by injury and performance issues, the No. 15 Anteaters (10-18 overall, 7-14 MPSF) appear to have made a turnabout in the past week, where they have swept the USC Trojans and CSUN Matadors to keep their postseason hopes alive.
UC Irvine can clinch a berth into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament tonight with a win over No. 5 Long Beach State (22-6 overall, 16-5 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation), whom swept the Anteaters the last time the two teams met. Even should UCI lose, the team would still clinch a bid to the postseason tournament provided Cal Baptist loses to Hawai’i later tonight.
This time around, the Anteaters will have the services of All-American opposite Tamir Hershko, who was sidelined for the majority of the season with a leg injury. In his two matches since returning, Hershko has respectively logged hitting percentages of .625 and .458.
However, the team has no intention of letting their playoff hopes be decided by anyone else but themselves. And despite the team’s struggles throughout the season, their aspirations of winning a national championship from the onset of the season remains unchanged.
As far as UCI men’s volleyball is concerned, last Sunday’s sweep against USC was the start of nine single elimination playoff games the team needs to win to ultimately hoist up the championship trophy.
As it currently stands, that’s two matches down, seven to go.
But the significance of tonight doesn’t just rest on the fact that it has repercussions for the rest of UCI’s season, but that it also marks the final home match in the collegiate careers of seniors Kyle Russell, Jason Agopian, and Marty Ross.
Russell and Agopian are both the only remaining players on the team to have been with the program for its back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013. Over his career, Russell has thrived as a serving specialist for the Anteaters, and ranks 10th all-time in program history with 82 aces. During this season, Russell has tallied a team-best 273 kills as an outside hitter. Agopian, a fellow northern California product, has been a mainstay in the Anteater’s front-row at middle blocker, and garnered first-team All-MPSF and second team All-American accolades in 2015.
Ross, who transferred to UCI from a now defunct Pacific team, has cracked the starting rotation in 2016 after spending the majority of last season on the sidelines. Nationally, Ross is seventh in blocking (1.05) and 10th for hitting percentage with a .432 clip.
Prior to the team’s practice Friday afternoon, The New University had an opportunity to sit down with all three players and discuss their thoughts about tonight’s match as well as reflect upon their time as Anteaters.
How does it feel knowing that tomorrow will be your final match in the Bren?
“Very surreal in a way. We have the mentality of we are going to continue into the playoffs, [so] we should be able to continue practicing in here, so I’m hoping that it’s not our last practice. But for our last match, I don’t know what my emotions are right now. I love playing in here, it’s been my home gym for five years now, the fans, the crowd, just the complete atmosphere… I’m going to miss this place though, that’s for sure. There’s always some special feeling, especially as a player when you walk into this gym. I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most, the lights and the atmosphere around it.”
You initially were exposed to the sport by supporting your sister, Jaimie, who played at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, but you actually had no intention of playing volleyball at first, correct?
“I showed up to her volleyball tournaments all the time, and her coach saw me one day, […] and saw me as a 6’ foot tall 14 year-old in there, and he comes up to me, and ask [why I’m not] playing volleyball. Well it’s a girl sport, I never had any intention of playing a girl sport before, and he [asked me to] come out and try it out. First two weeks of practice I didn’t want to go at all, I thought of every excuse in the book to get out of it. I was like no, I have basketball practice […] I locked myself in my room one day, that’s how adamant I was of not playing volleyball. My sister finally talked some sense into me […] I ended up playing the first week as a middle blocker and all the guys were amazed at how tall I was and how high I could jump and at that age I ended up finding that I actually really loved this sport […] I guess I’d just have to accredit my sister with it, she was in love with it, so I was just like yup, “I’ll give a try for you Jaimie.” [Volleyball] was able to bring me to a division 1 school, win a couple national times, and allowed me to get an education at a very top university, and I wouldn’t trade it in for the world.”
What attracted you to come down to UC Irvine?
“What brought me to Irvine was the players themselves; the atmosphere they had, the family mentality that they had with each other. I came on before my official visit, I think I came on like 10 unofficial visits where I would just come and hang out with the players on my own, we’d just hang out and have a good time. I actually spent a lot of time with Ian Castellana (’13) and Connor Hughes (’13), and they were a big reason why I wanted to come here, they treated me so well, and I was like, “I want to be a part of this family, I want to be a UC Irvine Anteater.”
What are some of your favorite moments from your time as an Anteater?
“Obviously winning the two national championships, that’s something that most people never get to do in their lifetime, and I was fortunate enough to have two and hopefully earn a third. Definitely a lot of our team bonding, our beach dodgeball tournaments that we put on as a team, we have a beach dodgeball tournament every Memorial Day, that’s always a great memory, and those have always stuck, and then from playing a great memory is the USC match where I came into serve us back from 11-13, I came back and served us to 15-13 for the match in the fifth set. That was my kind of my big moment in the Bren, that’s one of my greatest memories that I have in here.”
*Editor’s note: UCI, then No. 9 at the time, upset No. 5 USC in the match. Russell fired two aces after coming in to even the score.
What are your future plans after the season has ended, and what lessons from the volleyball team will you apply to those in the future?
“The future plan is to graduate with my bachelors in anthropology, and from there hopefully play overseas for as long as I possibly can. Then obviously the hope is to join the national team, make the Olympics one day, and all the guidance that [head coach David Kniffin] has given us, about just being a better man, applying effort to your life in every aspect, applying passion and just being able to [exude] what a good person should feel like, and not to use any negatives. You can just carry that all the way through your volleyball career, and through your normal career, through your life and the relationships, there’s a lot of information that would take me a while to say… Kniff has implanted a good amount of guidance for us to continue on and become better men and better people.”
How are you feeling today knowing that tomorrow is going to be your last time playing here?
“It was actually right before you interviewed me, I sat down right there, and I think that’s the moment where I was looking at the court and I was like, ‘Dang, it’s actually here’, and then I thought about the fact that, hopefully we make it into playoffs and I believe we will, but I was like, if we didn’t make it into playoffs, tomorrow is going to my last match, ever for UC Irvine, and today could be my last practice for UC Irvine… that’s pretty heavy. So my emotions, I guess, are [in] a state of reflection, you just start going down the different years that you’ve been here. But I mean, when the time comes, when I’m done, I’ll be pretty sad, but I do have a strong conviction that everything comes to an end; when something comes to an end, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, you just go on to the next thing in life.”
As one of the team’s veterans alongside Russell, what are some of the things that you’ve been hoping to impart to the rest of your teammates through the course of the season?
“I guess the way in which I try to impart things to the players that I’m with, it’s [simultaneously] something that I’m always trying to work on myself. I guess it kind of involves the same thing of what I was saying about that growth, and so it’s something I’m working on myself all the time, but it’s like I’m having to go through the constant struggle of this season; when we won national championships, our seasons didn’t look at this. And so through this season it’s challenging me in many different ways, as a player and as a person, and the thing that I would like to impart to them, and I would like to grow in the area of myself is that, just because something was a certain way, [and] I think this can bleed over into a lot of different areas of life, doesn’t mean that it has to continue to be that way. And I think that speaks wonders for our season, we have been a certain way, we have lost a lot of matches, we have had certain dynamics, but just because it was like that, there’s no reason why it has to stay that way, and I think that’s going be something that’s going be huge in helping us win a national championship, because if we keep our minds stuck thinking that we have to continue to be the way that we’ve been, or that we are going to continue be the way that we’ve been, then shoot, we’re never going to be a national championship team because we’re going to keep ourselves in those same tracks.”
What would you say has been your favorite moment thus far at UC Irvine?
“Winning national championships and winning a national championship in of itself is really cool right? It’s like a huge highlight, a glaring highlight, but I think it’s also kind of looked at as like, the highlight; this is supposed to be the best moment you’ve ever had in your whole career at UC Irvine. When I think back to those national championships, I remember feeling the day after the national championship, I remember feeling like I was the same person. My life didn’t drastically change, so for me when I look at that, I go ‘Dang, it’s crazy that we’re striving for a national championship with everything that we have, for hours, and for years, and for days, and everything that we have, and then we finally get it, [it’s this feeling of] ‘I want more.’’ When I think of the national championships, that’s sweet, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, that’s really cool […] but I guess what I really cherish is just the moments that I have with all my teammates. I really enjoy doing things such as traveling because you get away from regular life and you get away from school, you just go travel and hang out with your friends, you’re really able to bond with them in special ways. I think for me, the accumulation of those moments would be my favorite moment that I’ve had here at UC Irvine. But trust me, winning a national championship was sweet, and I want to do it again. Every senior wants to end their year with winning a national championship, but I do think that I cherish, and I have cherished other things more so than winning a national championship.”
How much do you think you have grown as as a player and as a person since coming to UCI?
“When I first came to UC Irvine, I was behind on volleyball still, I played in northern California, and volleyball is not the same as it is in southern California, and you don’t get the same coaching, you’re not going to get the same experience playing with better players […] My overall game has definitely increased since I first came into the school, and as a middle blocker I think that I’ve done a pretty good job of establishing myself as one of the better middles in the league. […] There’s always room to improve, no matter what level you get to, but I’ve definitely improved a lot as a player, and as a person, big time, there’s been a lot of changes in my life. […] I’ve grown a lot and when it comes to my character, it definitely gets challenged as you go through different seasons. You have very successful seasons and then you go through a season like this year, where it’s right in front of us [and] it hasn’t been very successful […] It’s hard to lose as much as you do and think of something as successful, but I don’t think that’s fully truthful, things can be successful in many different ways. I think the people in the world who are most successful latch onto the idea [that] you can’t look at things as failures, because it’s only a failure if you let it be a failure. It’s only failure if you don’t learn something from it.
“I’ve been through different tough times, my dad passed away two summers ago with brain tumor, and so that’s a huge life event that not many people go through, I’d say I’m one of the few, at least one of the few on this team, and everybody has their struggles and their different things in life and the way it kind of twists and turns and what they’re not expecting, but through that process, it’s just been super challenging and I’m a Christian guy and it’s challenging to my faith, but yet at the same time, you can learn so much from situations. You don’t know why things happen, and later on down the road you hope to look back and be like wow, I guess you look at the story that unfolded. But I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person, and not necessarily tangible growth all the time, but I guess it’s just the mindset that I’ve grown into. I think the mindset that I now have is now a lot more mature than I was a freshman.”
What are your plans post-graduation?
“What I think I have my mindset on right now, is I want to pursue residential real estate in the end […] my dad did real estate as well […] I was able to kind of be around that and see it, so it seemed like a profession that would be pretty sweet and I’ve always struggled with what [I want to do]. Not what can I do, because I can do a lot of stuff, but what I do want to do and enjoy doing. But before that, I’m going to try out for the USA Pan American Cup team, and I want to see how that goes, and if I do have the opportunity, I want to play professionally. I don’t know how long that career will be, and I don’t know if it’s even going to happen, but that’s something that I want to do, because shoot, if I have the chance to do it I might as well do it. I’m going to be working for my whole life, but I’m not going to be playing volleyball competitively my whole life,
Has it sunk yet that tomorrow will be your final time playing in the Bren Events Center?
“Not at all, not for the reason of advancing or anything like that, it’s just another game for me. It’ll probably hit me in like a week, when I don’t have anything to do, like college volleyball’s over, I’ll probably get super depressed […] but right now I’m just riding the wave. I am [super emotional], which scares me, maybe it’ll hit me that last point, but I haven’t really thought about it too much.”
In our interview earlier this season, you talked about your frustrations from last year in terms of being sidelined for the first time. Since then, you’ve come to consistently be a part of the starting rotation, and a major contributor for the Anteaters. How does that feel?
“It’s not really surprising in a sense, because I know that between me, Jason, and [Andrew] Benz, all three of us could be All-Americans, or all three of us could start on any college team, so it’s kind of like it [me starting] was the luck of the draw. I had a good run with it, and last year it was Benz and Jason playing all year. I think it’s a testament to how good these three middles are.”
What are the biggest lessons that you’ll take away from your time as an anteater?
“A lot of personal growth, just in the sense of keeping my emotions in check, acting rationally, just learning to love adversity [as] coach David Kniffin has preached to us, and it’s finally starting to… not make sense, but it’s becoming easier for me to see an adverse situation and be like, “Alright, cool, let’s deal with it’, instead of go through the stress and freaking out. Not saying I don’t get stressed, but I think I’m a lot better at dealing with it now and I’m really excited to pursue a career [as a police officer] where it’s going to be very stressful where I can make the leap [that] probably not a lot of people could without [the] kind of training I went through this year, along with being a student-athlete juggling [my studies and practice].
Do you have any favorite memories as an Anteater?
“USC, I remember the first set we had a huge crowd, it was for set point, it was 24-23, I forgot whose serve, but it was an overpass and I just dunked it down. I was super pumped about that… And how can I forget, beating UCLA? That was by far the best feeling overall, I can’t remember a specific set, but the whole fifth set was great.”
*Editor’s Note: Ross is referring to the team’s 3-1 victory over USC at home on Feb. 5 and their five-set upset over then-No. 2 UCLA on the road on Feb. 11.