Despite a strong finish to a season that saw to nine victories in 10 matches, a straight set loss to Long Beach State at Walter Pyramid in the MPSF semifinals abruptly ended the UC Irvine men’s volleyball’s chances of reaching their ultimate goal to compete for an NCAA championship. Without an at-large bid, the loss marked the very last collegiate match for five graduating seniors.
The New University sports section caught up with setter Michael Saeta and libero Dillon Hoffman, two of the program’s five seniors, in a retrospective Q&A session in hopes of garnering some insight into their thoughts on the past season, where they believe the team is heading next year, and what they plan on doing in the future.
Saeta was selected to the MPSF first team and was also named second team All-America by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). Saeta finished the season averaging a 0.59 average in aces—enough for third in the nation. This past season, he had also set a new single season program record in aces with 63. With a career total of 161 aces, Saeta ends his career second in UCI’s program history.
Hoffman earned his first ever All-American honorable mention to go along with an All-MPSF nod. The libero ends the year tied for the most digs in the MPSF with 248. Hoffman ranked third overall in conference and 10th nationally with an average of 2.38 in digs.
New University: Following the tough season that the team went through last year, what was your personal mentality as well as the collective team mentality heading into this season?
Michael Saeta: If you look at what we had…I think we came into the preseason ranked fourth in the MPSF…I think that teams understood that we we’re going to be good because of the senior class we had, because we had Scott [Stadick] coming in, because we still had the depth of this team that we will continue to have every year. So, my mindset right from the beginning was that I wanted to win a national championship. Whatever that means for each individual in our team, we had this collective idea that our main goal was to win. We just wanted to facilitate whatever we could to make that happen, and so whether it’s shared experience up in Yosemite or if it’s us getting in the weight room and hitting that really hard and then getting on the court as quick as possible and becoming a collective unit…you know, I think that we made the right steps at the beginning of the year to be where we were at the end of the year.
Dillon Hoffman: It felt like this year was a big reset. We came in and people we’re hungry to get it and to prove that we were still a top team and not just a first round exit MPSF team. I mean…I was ready to fight for this year for sure. My back was healthy and I felt great and I felt like people were just an open book and felt ready to be all into the experience.
NU: At this point in time early in the season, was there any concerns that you had for yourselves as well as for the team?
MS: I personally wanted to contribute as much as possible to the team. I actually played opposite the year before and I didn’t know what my role on the team would be on the court this year in terms of setting, hitting…whatever it may be…whatever we needed…but I just wanted to be to try to be the best player I could be and I wanted…at the end of the year…to know that what I could bring was going to be enough to help this team win. As a team collectively, having young middles is always an interesting deal [with] Scott and Matt coming in as freshman this year…so that’s a heavy load for freshman to carry. Sometimes…you know, honestly if you asked me what our starting lineup was going to be at the beginning of the year…I wouldn’t have known. I didn’t think that it was all that important because I think we had the right pieces but I didn’t know where everything was going to fall in line…so that always throws some uncertainty in people…but that’s just because we didn’t figure out the puzzle yet.
DH: Oh yeah for sure (laughs). We were pretty dysfunction at the beginning of the season. I mean we had that feeling the whole year…but at the beginning Tamir (Hershko) and Thomas (Hodges) was still playing overseas at their own countries and it looked a little rough. You could see the hope and the promise but you still have those early preseason jitters and everything…we go to Hawai’i and get crushed and still have a little bit of nagging injuries…so yeah it was pretty dysfunctional but we all saw how it could be.
NU: Then you hit that month long road trip where it seems as though things were really clicking on all cylinders. What changed from the beginning of the year to the latter end of the year?
MS: It’s hard to say what changed. I don’t necessarily know if there was a defining [or] changing moment for us. I think beating Ohio State showed us what we could and what we were capable of. I think as a team you have to understand what your actual capabilities are and what you can achieve and so when we beat Ohio State and when we swept them there, served very well, we played good defense, we just played the game collectively at the level that we wanted to…that showed us what we are capable of and that showed the team that we could be and when we hit those strides…that’s something that we can instill, remember, and hopefully repeat. I think that was good…that contributed to our swagger a little bit…that contributed to us as competitors…knowing that there was not a team that we couldn’t beat. So I think that that whole road trip brought us together because we are on the road for a while with each other, but at the same time it also gave us the confidence that we really were a team that not only said that they were going to contend for a national championship but was going to show it on the court. It reaffirmed and put into fruition things we’ve been talking about all preseason. There needs to be a point in the season where it starts happening and we’re not just talking about it and I think that the road trip did that for us.
DH: It was all kinda peaking. [During] the whole road trip, we were figuring out who we were and all this stuff and getting our line-up dialed in [and] then we got to the [Ohio] game and you could tell that guys were just so hungry for that moment and once we were in it like down 17-11 the first set…like…you would look around and there was no nervousness, no fear in any one’s eyes and I mean after that Tucker [Pikula] got us a couple of points and from there we didn’t look back and everyone was so aggressive…it was just great to see the whole team focused on that one goal and just beating them…
Kniff kinda trains [us] for that kind of season. Even if you don’t have it in the beginning and you’re dropping some games, you’re gonna be where you need to be by that time…he looks at those things. We’re trained to be in such adverse situation… and…I don’t know…being in the midwest for a week, just driving around in vans and living out of vans and eating all this terrible food…I don’t know…those were the kind of moments when we thrived.
NU: Was there a favorite match or favorite moment that you enjoyed during the road trip?
MS: You know…it’s hard to say…sweeping at Ohio State was awesome but my favorite experience, my favorite place to play in the country is at BYU. The fans get really into it, it’s always an exciting environment, and they were a really good team. So, when we were at BYU and I got on the service line at 19-24 and we ended up winning that set…that was my favorite experience of the year in terms of a specific time where I was reminded of what I love about the game.
DH: Oh for sure Ohio State. Oh well actually, Ohio state was…volleyball wise…was my favorite experience on that road trip, but when we played Saint Francis at their place, they had these hecklers that were called like the…the Rascals or something. They put out these great lines that I will never forget regarding Kniff being twelve years old and Hershko ended up being his dad…but yeah…those guys did their jobs. It was funny cause we got up pretty high on them during one of those games but they don’t give up…but yeah…they didn’t stop… that was a memorable game for me.
NU: After getting on a roll and heading into the postseason, what did you tell some the younger players on the team, some of whom were about to get there first or second taste of MPSF tournament play?
MS: I think the mentality on our team really didn’t switch all that much as we approached the playoffs. The only thing that really changed was just that…it was playoffs and sometimes you get a little more hyped up and nerves hit you a little harder…but the guys…I think, did a great job of understanding that and being okay with it…using [their] nerves to perform at the level they needed to.
I remember telling Austin Wilmot, one of our redshirt freshman…we were playing Santa Barbara in five and we were down. I remember looking at him and he looked terrified and he said, ‘Aren’t you scared during that times’ and I said no because you love those moments…this is what you played for. This is what separates the competition that we train a whole year for…these are the opportunities that you could fear and really not want or these are the ones you could live for and I really do enjoy those moments so playoffs are always fun because you get more and more of those.
DH: Specifically no. They were just so good at handling those big game pressures…even if they’re stat lines wasn’t good during a big game…I think it was just because the team’s mentality was that we were going to be supportive no matter what…if you needed it you knew that there was going to be a guy that’s gonna help you out…
In the first match of MPSF postseason play, the team faced up against UCLA at the Bren. What did you make of the team’s performance against the Bruins that night?
MS: You know, they were a really good team and they had got a lot of impressive athletes. They had a strong senior class, a good coach, and you know obviously UCLA is a big name…so as long as [we] didn’t buy into that and we just played volleyball, they didn’t scare us at all. They’re a good team but when we play our best game, we are a better team and so that’s all we really focused on…so we were very excited to play them.
DH: It was so exciting. There was so much energy in the gym…I love playing in the Bren when it’s packed, especially playing [against] UCLA, that’s always nice. But yeah, it’s funny cause I think everything we did during the year worked out during that game. Once we got to the third set or the fourth set…I was like…even if we lose this game, I have no fear that we won’t win the next…like fifth set…we’re going to crush them. There was just a lot of confidence playing in front of the Bren and everyone was stoked.
NU: Then, in the next round, the team faced off against Long Beach, a program that caused problems for UCI all year long. What was it about Long Beach that made them such a tough opponent?
MS: They’re a really good team and I’m really impressed about what they’ve done this year. They block very well, they’re so scrappy, they don’t take any plays off, and they make you really work for your points. We’ve played them before and we understood that in order to beat a team like this, you have to have patience. You have to have this ability to get dug on one of your best hits and get the same ball and look at that opportunity and not think that you need to do more…and that can go for me serving…for me setting and not trying to do crazy things to think I need to beat this team in a different way but I think we were a little impatient because that team is steady…they make you compete…they make you play…so hats off to Long Beach.
DH: They’re such a good team. They were so consistent in their game plan…and it wasn’t like a specific game plan for each team…but Long Beach is a team that…you know…even if they’re down you can tell that they’re not really flustered and they’ll make those great digs and get great touches. They’ll just keep going with what they know and what they know is so great in volleyball…I mean, that’s a smart team.
NU: The end goal was clearly to go back and compete for a national championship. However, even with the journey cut short, what are your final thoughts on the season as a whole? What can you still hang your hat on?
MS: Yeah, of course. I’m going out with a great senior class and I’m really proud of the accomplishments that we had as a team. I’m a competitor and you can ask any guy on my team…and I hate, I hate losing…and it hangs with me pretty heavily. I’m still thinking a lot about that last match and what we could have done to not have it go the way it did and the reality is that it did and that’s alright because you do look at the year that we’ve had and we’ve had a lot of cool experiences. So, I’m proud of the team…I’m proud of the guys and I don’t think that there is going to be any slip in this program in the next years.
DH: Personally…I think that a feeling I had after was that I really did put all I had out there so…I mean…there’s no regrets..like for sure from my standpoint. Yeah, I like to win but I don’t know…you could tell we put in so much effort and at the end of the day…that’s the biggest thing for me…as long as you left it all out there.
NU: Now that your collegiate careers have come to an end, how was it like playing under a coach like David Kniffin? What were some of the methods that he used to prepare the team for a given season?
MS: It’s interesting…(laughs). It’ll tire you out from time to time because he’s not a coach that will ever let you take days, points, anything off. He’s really intent on growing individuals to be the best they can be and that doesn’t necessarily mean being a good volleyball player. It means being a good student, it means being a good person, husband, whatever it happens to be…he wants to make sure he facilitates growth in this program…and that could be difficult at times…you know…whether your’e not playing and you want to be able to better at a [particular] skill then he’s going to focus on ‘okay, it may not be a skill problem but what your mind…
Kniff is looking so much more at this entire program [and] these people he is turning out. You know he wants to win championships but he wants to win championships the right way and he thinks that happens by creating individuals that you’re proud to have as alumni. So, It’s been a great experience…I’ve had my ups and downs in this program…I’ve had my moments of collapse where its been a lot to deal with but that makes me into the person I am today and I’m very, very thankful that I have had him as a coach.
DH: Yeah I mean, of the coaches I’ve had, Kniff is very unique. I think what’s going to hit me with Kniff is that he’s so compassionate for the team and not only for volleyball success but how we are for the future. He really cares about the team itself and he really cares about everyone in this community and I think that that’s what I’m going to remember about Kniff the most.
NU: And how did it feel to enjoy this journey with the other departing seniors in Tamir Hershko, Thomas Hodges, and Andrew Benz?
MS: It’s kinda weird cause for two years…it was experience with different guys in my class. So it started off with me, Andrew [Benz], Dillon Hoffman, and Phillip Friedman. And then the next year came this Israeli guy who worked in army and lived with me and was a great guy and didn’t speak very much English and then the year after that…Thomas Hodges…this Australian guy came and then Phil ended up not taking a fifth year so it’s been changing, which has been interesting but it’s been awesome.
I’ve grown with these guys and they’ve been a part of my whole experience and it really wouldn’t be the same without these guys. You know, you want to go out with a senior class that you feel like is, [for] one, close to who you have, but is also a good team and is a good group of guys that you want to go into battle with and leave with…I’ve been very really lucky to have these guys be in my class and I’m in theirs and it’s just been a cool experience with all of them.
DH: It’s crazy…the evolution of our goals each year…this is the only year that it was really a…by the senior class…that it was a collective effort, like we were pushing for this goal and there was nothing individual about it.
We’ve been together for so long and we also just bought into Kniff’s plans and we kinda understood what was necessary to achieve…what could have been achieved…and just realizing Kniff’s goals helped us.
NU: Having gone through four-five years of collegiate volleyball at UC Irvine, what can you say is your proudest moment or experience?
MS: That’s tough to say…the obvious answer is winning the national championship freshman year…only one team a year gets to win at the end of the year and that’s a really cool experience…but you know…it’s hard to say…because I don’t think you could encapsulate a history of five years in an institution that has been so amazing over my lifetime…I just don’t think that I could say anything that’s going to completely highlight my experience here because it really has been unlike anything I could have asked for and I hope that guys will continue to have the enjoyment and the fulfillment that this program has given me in the future.
DH: I don’t know…I feel like one of my proudest moments are just winning drills as an outside or hitting…maybe two-man with Aaron Koubi while we’re playing a three-man game…those are some fun times…those are times that I will always remember…but proudest moment…I don’t know if there is a single game I’d pick…maybe the last one…maybe just the last game now that I think of it. I’m just proud to be at that point…proud of everything that has happened…not like how I did personally but…it was a proud moment to go through everything with everyone and I guess end at that point. I had a great time and a great career here.
NU: Looking onto the future for UC Irvine volleyball, where do you think the team will be moving forward?
MS: I see the same thing as I’ve seen in the past four to five years that I’ve been here. Even if we don’t necessarily get the number one prospect in the country…who was Scott [this year], we’re going to have those guys by their junior or senior years. We’re going to have the guys that are willing to work hard [and] to make a difference in this league, [and] next year we got a good freshman class coming in too.
Once our seniors graduate this year, it opens up opportunities for people that have been training hard in the gym…like Reid Dominguez, Tucker Pikula, David Parker…you know, we’re going to have guys that are going to be able to step right in and play at a very high level. So, I think the guys are going to be okay and I think that the league is really good right now. Realistically, Long Beach doesn’t lose that many of their core guys. They do lose graduate a bunch of seniors…yeah, but I think if you look at what makes the identity of that team, you still have those key components there. Ohio State still has a lot of good guys. BYU is not going to lose [Brendan] Sander and they’re still going to be a good team…but I think Irvine is going to be a force to be reckoned with. They’re going to have physicality next year, they’re going to have good coaching, they’re going to have common experience that is going to propel them forward, and they’re going to be a team that’s going to develop into something impressive.
DH: I mean…only bright things….even if it’s not volleyball success…the way Kniff is taking the team…it’s cultivating these champions to become great. I think it’s only positive…I’m excited to see what happens next year.
NU: What legacy would you like to leave behind?
MS: I still haven’t really thought about that in terms of what image I’d want to leave with this program, but I don’t think that it’s something that now that I’m out I get to decide. I think that that’s something that I’ve instilled over my five years here. What it may be? I don’t know. It may be a combination of trying your best to excel not only in volleyball but at academics or being a good boyfriend or enjoying your time here. I don’t know what it is that I’ll leave behind but…I hope it’s something (laughs)…just a little bit. At the end of the day, I just hope I gave an impression to the freshman and to the guys of hard work and wanting to compete and never being satisfied and never quitting because those are some of the values that I hold really dear to my heart.
DH: That’s rough (laughs)…I don’t know. I think I just want to have people have fun and do what they love…to enjoy the moment and soak it all in…it’s such a great experience. It doesn’t really end, like even if we’re done with volleyball, I feel so attached to the community and to the program.
NU: So, what’s next in your future?
MS: I want to play professional volleyball for a little bit…where that may be…we’ll find out in the next couple of weeks, but right now I’m starting to train with a national team and I have aspirations of becoming an olympian one day and I’d really love to do that for the country and to see what I could do on an individual level and to see where my skills can take me…but for now, I’m just an alumni…I’m not a professional athlete yet…I’m just a proud supporter of UC Irvine volleyball.
DH: That’s to be determined. I’m not putting much effort into playing overseas or training for beach or anything. I’m actually working as a PTA and I might go back to school to become a physical therapist…kinda give back to the athletic community and hopefully help out guys like myself…you know struggling through college with some injuries…I mean, that’s in my eyesight right now.