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Tillie in own orbit

Men's Volleyball

High-flying outside hitter from France has helped UCI close in on its third NCAA title since 2007.

May 01, 2012|By Barry Faulkner
  • Kevin Tillie leads top-seeded UC Irvine against No. 4 seeded Penn State in a semifinal of the NCAA Championship Thursday at 6 p.m. at USC's Galen Center.
Kevin Tillie leads top-seeded UC Irvine against No. 4… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

Even in board shorts and a T-shirt, Kevin Tillie raises eyebrows in his Newport Beach neighborhood, navigating somewhat skittishly along the cultural shore break that sometimes renders him a hopeless outsider.

"I'm getting better [with the cultural differences], but I still get people who recognize me and ask me 'Where are you from?' or a random 'You're not from around here,'" said Tillie, a native of France in his first season with the UC Irvine men's volleyball team.

His mildly discernible accent often gives him away, and prompts kidding from teammates who refer to him as [French] toast, Jean Pierre, or the less-provincial Tillie.

It is, however, when he takes the court that the 6-foot-5 outside hitter most noticeably separates himself from his peers. It is, oddly, within the confines of college volleyball that the high-flying Tillie orbits increasingly apart.

"Oh my God, he's unreal," said Tillie's UCI teammate, Connor Hughes, who recalls first witnessing the rather unique athleticism that made the transfer from Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada an instant commodity on his recruiting visit to Irvine.

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"He came with us to hit some balls in the gym one morning and just started crushing balls," Hughes said. "We were all like, 'We've got to get this guy.'"

UCI Coach John Speraw was similarly motivated upon viewing a videotape of Tillie's play provided by a mutual friend.

"He's a pretty unique volleyball player," Speraw said of the first-team All-American who helped propel the Anteaters (24-5) to the No. 1 seed in the four-team NCAA Championship that begins Thursday at USC's Galen Center. UCI plays No. 4-seeded Penn State (23-5) at 6 p.m.

"I got that video and it sat on my computer for weeks," Speraw said. "But it was late January [2011] and we were at Penn State, having just played them. It was snowing outside, so me and [then-assistant] David Kniffin were just hanging out in our hotel room. I opened up my computer and decided it was time to watch the [Tillie] video. I bet you it was about three [Tillie] swings and I said 'Kniff, you've got to check this out.' He came over, watched a couple more swings and asked me what I wanted to do. I said 'I'm all in.' It didn't take long watching that video to figure out that this was a guy I wanted in my program."

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