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.
"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.
"[Tillie] will have the opportunity this season to define his own role, which is something I don't think he really had last year," Kniffin said. "Kevin is a huge weapon wherever he is on the court."
Also back is returning first-team All-MPSF outside hitter Jeremy Dejno, a junior who gave way in the postseason last year to Connor Hughes. Hughes, now a 6-foot-6 junior who could share time with Dejno outside, or step in for Clark, a four-time All-American, at opposite.
The 6-4 Dejno was third on the team last year with 268 kills and his 35 aces were second-most among 'Eaters.
Other returning starters include setter Chris Austin, who took over for Daniel Stork last season and triggered a run to the title. Austin, a senior, is the front-runner to keep Stork, a junior, in a backup role, though Kniffin believes both will have an opportunity to shine.
Scott Kevorken, a 6-9 junior, returns at one middle blocker spot after posting 78 total blocks, second-best on the team, and 135 kills in 2012.
Sophomore Michael Brinkley is a returning starter at libero. He posted a team-best 199 digs last season and has taken on a greater leadership role this season, Kniffin said.
Zack La Cavera, a 6-4 sophomore, is the leading candidate to open the season at opposite after seeing limited duty as a backup to Clark last season.
Kniffin said Kyle Russell, a 6-8 sophomore, and Hughes could also see some time at opposite.
The battle for the starting nod at the other middle blocker spot is between 6-7 junior Collin Mehring, 6-7 sophomore Jason Agopian and 6-6 junior Ian Castellana.
Dan McDonnell, who became a potent offensive weapon last season, and Austin D'Amore, who added spark whenever called upon, are both middle blockers who graduated after last season.
Will Thomas, a senior libero and emotional spark plug, will also contribute, said Kniffin, who noted that he would not be surprised if all four freshmen redshirt.
The Anteaters open Wednesday with a 7 p.m. home exhibition match against nearby NAIA representative Concordia at Crawford Court.
UCI, which was 26-5 last season, opens its regular season at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational Friday through Sunday.
UCI opens at home on Jan. 8 against Pepperdine and plays host to USC in a rematch of last year's NCAA final on Jan. 11.
The 'Eaters renew acquaintance with Speraw when they visit UCLA on Jan. 29. UCLA visits the Bren Events Center on March 30.
BYU, picked to finish second in the MPSF preseason poll, plays host to UCI on Jan. 18. The Cougars play at UCI on March 1.
The four-team NCAA Championship is at UCLA's newly renovated Pauley Pavilion in May.
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times