Los Angeles Times

Faulkner: It's crunch time for Anteaters

Two of the hottest men's volleyball teams in the country square off Friday night at the Bren Events Center, when No. 6-ranked UC Irvine plays host to No. 4-ranked Stanford at 7 p.m.

Coach David Kniffin's Anteaters (17-9, 14-8 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) have won three straight matches and eight of their last nine. They currently sit in a fourth-place tie with UC Santa Barbara.

Stanford (18-7, 15-7) has nine consecutive wins and is looking to solidify third place and potentially challenge Pepperdine (16-6 in conference) for second.

UCI could also wind up in second and a win over the Cardinal, as well as Pacific (3-22, 0-20) in the regular-season finale on Saturday at home, would at least give the two-time-defending national champion 'Eaters a top-four seeding and a home match in the April 19 MPSF Tournament quarterfinals.

With five senior starters, the Anteaters are not lacking poise or confidence. But Kniffin said that a recent comment by veteran assistant coach Mark Presho should help amp up the adrenaline that typically propels UCI into postseason success.

"I was telling our guys about the implications of the matches this weekend and Presho just added that he thought we were going to play Stanford again in the MPSF tournament," Kniffin said. "Presh told them, 'I don't care where we are, seeded No. 1 through No. 8, because we are going to win the tournament.'"

Kniffin said the comment was vintage Presho.

"I love that confidence and poise," Kniffin said of Presho. "He can be the ultimate pessimist during the first part of the season, and he nit-picks about everything trying to make us better. But when it comes to the playoffs, he just thinks that we've got what we've got and that's enough to win. It's fun to watch Presho get fired up at this time of year, just like our players."

Stanford swept UCI, 25-20, 25-21, 25-19, at home on Feb. 8, but Kniffin said the loss came with extenuating circumstances.

"I made a mistake and agreed to play that match at noon, so we could be on the Pac-12 Network," Kniffin said. "We played the night before at 7 p.m. [at Pacific] and we had to get up at 7 a.m. and drive to Palo Alto to play at noon. That just wasn't a good formula for us."

Kniffin was quick to not dismiss Pacific, which plays its final match before the program is disbanded after this season.

UCI fans can get a look at two UOP starters expected to transfer to UCI next season, although NCAA rules prohibit Kniffin from identifying the future Anteaters until proper paperwork is filed.

•The UC Irvine women's tennis team has a showdown at Long Beach State on Saturday for sole possession of first place in the Big West Conference. Coach Mike Edles' Anteaters (14-5, 6-0 in conference) are tied atop the standings with the 49ers (15-2, 6-0) heading into the 11 a.m. match.

UCI has won 11 straight matches and a win Saturday would mean at least a share of the regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, since both teams have only one remaining Big West contest.

The 'Eaters have won their last 16 regular-season conference matches. The reigning Big West champions were 9-0 in conference play in 2013, when they earned the program's first NCAA Tournament victory, before bowing out in the second round.

Senior Franziska Goettsching has 26 wins at No. 3 singles this season, as well as 27 doubles victories to pace the 'Eaters.

Long Beach State is on a six-match winning streak.

Saturday's winner would claim the outright crown, barring an upset in their final Big West match. The 49ers finish the regular season at UC Riverside (0-16, 0-5) on April 18, while UCI also closes against the Highlanders in the Inland Empire on April 17.

The Big West tournament is April 24-27 in Indian Wells.

•The No. 6-ranked UCI women's water polo team is off to a 2-0 start in the Big West and faces two conference road contests: Saturday against No. 15-ranked UCSB and Sunday against No. 7-ranked Cal State Northridge this weekend.

Northridge is also 2-0 in Big West play heading into the weekend.

UCI completes conference play on April 17 at home against No. 12-ranked Long Beach State.

The Big West tournament, from which the winner earns an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament, is April 25-27 in Long Beach.

•The euphoria surrounding the Vanguard men's basketball team's NAIA Division I national title has yet to subside on the Costa Mesa campus.

The team's NAIA tournament run of five wins in seven days through March 25 triggered a little March Madness nostalgia for assistant coach Kevin Heenan, who was a starter on the Cal State Fullerton team that reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament in 1978.

The Titans, known then as "Cal State Who," defeated then-No. 4-ranked New Mexico (led by Michael Cooper) and San Francisco (led by Bill Cartwright and was ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll) before being eliminated by Sidney Moncrief-led Arkansas, 61-58, in the West Regional final. Arkansas was ranked No. 5 in the final AP poll.

"When I was at Fullerton, we lost to go to the Final Four," said Heenan, whose three children were noteworthy athletes at Newport Harbor High and Vanguard. "I was telling my kids, when I was back there in Kansas City [site of the NAIA Tournament] that I was finally part of a team that went to the Final Four. And then to win it was just a neat opportunity.

"That [unranked Fullerton] team has some similarities to this [Vanguard] team, in terms of guys who could shoot and handle the ball, and guys who believed in their coaching."

Heenan said people ask him about that magical 1977-78 season often, particularly when the NCAA Tournament arrives each March.

"You'd be surprised how often people mention it to me," Heenan said. "I told these [Vanguard players] that I can't wait until our 25-year reunion, when I'm 81. They don't understand it now, but what they've done will live on. I hear from people [about Cal State Who] in all walks of life, including in business. They say 'You played for that team?' It's fun."

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