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Men's Volleyball Preview: UCI chasing crown again

Back-to-back NCAA champion, with four titles in seven seasons, is ranked atop national preseason poll.

December 18, 2013|By Barry Faulkner
(KEVIN CHANG / Daily…)

For a program that has grown so accustomed to winning, perhaps the greatest accomplishment achieved by UC Irvine men's volleyball is its ability to withstand loss.

After capturing their third NCAA title in six seasons in 2012, the Anteaters last season absorbed the loss of their figurehead, leader and coach, John Speraw, as well as a four-time All-American in Carson Clark, who just happens to be the school's all-time kills leader.

The result was yet another national crown that first-year coach and former Speraw assistant David Kniffin trumpeted as a triumph of the culture of success that permeates the program.

Kniffin now knows the drill, but the Anteaters once again lost not only their best player in two-time first-team All-American Kevin Tillie, but setter Chris Austin, who triggered the attack down the stretch of the first back-to-back title runs since UCLA repeated as champion in 1995 and 1996.

Still, the 'Eaters were ranked atop the preseason national poll and picked third in the preseason Mountain Pacific Sports Federation coaches' poll.

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"We're the defending national champion for two years in a row and so I think there is some cache that comes with that," said Kniffin, who welcomes 10 returning letterman , including three 2013 All-Americans, as well as the NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player. "I think a lot of people have this impression of UC Irvine volleyball that is based on last year and I don't think that's very accurate.

Kniffin did little to add clarity by electing not to play fall matches, a practice used by most programs to help them learn about themselves, as well as the competition, months before the season begins.

"I thought we needed to decompress," Kniffin said of his team's lack of matches in the fall. "We were so wrapped up, both emotionally and physically, in our pursuit of our competitive objective last year that I think we were beat up after the season."

The 'Eaters also left the postseason competition nursing a few wounds in 2013, when they finished second in the MPSF regular season, then ran the table in the MPSF and NCAA tournaments and swept MPSF regular-season champion BYU in the title match.

UCI's weaponry this season includes junior libero Michael Brinkley, a first-team All-American and All-MPSF performer a year ago. Senior middle blockers Collin Mehring and Scott Kevorken, as well as NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player Connor Hughes, a senior outside hitter, are additional players with impressive credentials.

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