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Men's Volleyball: New era, same expectations for UCI

UCI men's volleyball opens defense of its NCAA title with new coach, but several key returners.

December 31, 2012|By Barry Faulkner
(Don Leach | Daily…)

After winning the program's third NCAA championship in six seasons in 2012, the UC Irvine men's volleyball team said goodbye to a legendary coach who some consider the best in the business, a four-time All-American who is the school's career kills leader, an All-American middle blocker, and two reserves gifted enough to start for most programs in America.

Any perception of devastation, however, was quickly dispelled by UCI's first No. 1 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches' Assn. national preseason poll. Also, Mountain Pacific Sports Federation coaches tabbed the Anteaters to finish first in the conference that has produced 39 of the last 43 national champions.

What's wrong with this picture?

Very little says first-year coach and former Anteaters assistant and setter David Kniffin, who after one season as an assistant with the Illinois women's program that reached the NCAA title match, returned to his alma mater to step in for his mentor John Speraw, who left after 10 seasons to replace the retired Al Scates at UCLA.

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"I expected people would have us coming in as a strong favorite, based on the perception that we haven't lost a lot," said Kniffin, who is foremost among those who could easily be forgiven for stepping sheepishly in and around the ghost-like remnants of the recently departed.

"We are changing components, but the basic machine and the way we want to run stays the same," said Kniffin, who has plenty of reason to sound so self-assured, while remaining characteristically philosophical.

"We had people graduate and move on and, obviously, there have been some staffing changes," Kniffin said. "The question is, can we very quickly understand that the puzzle we're putting together is different and we're not trying to make each guy fill somebody else's shoes. Instead, it's about redefining who we are as individuals and, with the pieces of the puzzle that we have, becoming the best team that we can be."

The puzzle pieces include All-American senior outside hitter Kevin Tillie, who in his first season at UCI last year, emerged as one of the most dynamic attackers in the nation.

A 6-6 native of France who played his first to collegiate seasons in Canada, Tillie had 342 kills last season, second to then-senior Carson Clark. Tillie hit .387 and added 56 total blocks and 22 aces.

Kniffin said Tillie will have the chance to become even more prolific this season.

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