Cal State Northridge volleyball Coach John Price, talking to UC Irvine assistant James Felton before the season, said he thought the Anteaters would be a force in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Irvine was 1-18 in conference last season, but Felton didn't tell Price to save the coachspeak for media day.
"He said that Leland (Quinn) being healthy gave us instant credibility," Felton said. "That's how big a part of our team he is."
Can one player lift a whole team to new heights?
Apparently, this Price was right. Eleven days ago, Price watched Irvine's senior opposite hitter soar for a school-record 91 attempts and come down with a school-record 50 kills. Quinn eclipsed his own single-match records of 37 kills and 75 attempts.
The Anteaters lost in five games to the fifth-ranked Matadors, but Price saw nothing that changed his mind about the mighty Quinn. The Anteaters (7-9 overall) are ranked No. 12 in the country, with a 5-8 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation record, which is one more conference victory than in the last three seasons combined.
Everybody talks about Quinn's offense--his 6.97-per-game kill average is sixth in the nation--but Irvine Coach Andy Read said the 6-foot-9 Quinn contributes much more than a strong arm.
"He's also a tremendous defensive weapon," Read said. "He's so big and he takes up a lot of space at the net. We're trying to play some games with him and let him roam, putting him in situations where he ends up where the ball is set.
"And he's also very charismatic. In practice, he's able to pick up the guys who are down. That's one of his key roles for us, to be an emotional leader, to keep us fired up. He has a very positive frame of mind."
At this time last year, Quinn was more Mr. Doubt than Mr. Fire. He had a torn muscle in his shoulder and was having trouble maintaining his usual optimism.
"It was very, very scary," said Quinn, who played in only 25 games last year. "You know, since you were 4 years old in T-ball, you've always considered yourself an athlete. And then all of sudden you can't even go out and shoot baskets. I mean I couldn't even drive with two hands. It was a life crisis."
Doctors described Quinn's injury, a torn muscle in the rotator cuff, as an "over-use injury." Quinn calls it a "stupidity injury."
"You get to thinking you're invincible and you're always taught to play with pain," he said. "Well, I was taking 20 Advil a day in preseason, not telling the coaches, hoping I could play through it and it would just go away."
In a macabre sort of way, it did. Doctors discovered that the muscle had been torn for so long, it had atrophied to the point where it was almost indistinguishable.
Quinn began a time-consuming rehabilitation regimen that included a lot of surfing, providing him with the benefits of paddling and the time to consider his situation.
"I had so much riding on it in my own mind," he said. "My own self-esteem, the fact that I made the decision in (Ocean View) high school to quit basketball because I wanted to be a big-time volleyball player.
"And, all of a sudden, I don't have basketball or volleyball, and I don't have a shoulder. So, it was like, 'You better get your degree.' "
Obviously, he's going strong these days, but Quinn admits to some anxiety. So he still spends about three hours a day strengthening his shoulder.
"Regardless if it's necessary or not," he said, "it's necessary for my peace of mind.
"It's that fear of the 9 to 5, you know."
Italian ties? Quinn still has some options that could keep him out of a suit and tie and in a uniform. He and Irvine setter Jason Hinchman have been contacted by some Italian teams as a "package deal."
"This marriage of five years may go on," Quinn said. "It's something we would both like to do."
Six teams ranked in the top 39 nationally will be among 15 competing in the 16th annual UC Irvine/Marriott Classic tennis tournament beginning today and continuing through Saturday. The championship match will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at UCI Tennis Stadium. South Alabama, No. 11 in the country, will be the top-seeded team. No. 28 Fresno State is seeded second. Irvine, tied for 37th, is the third-seeded team. Senior Chris Tontz, ranked 29th in the nation, and sophomore Marc-Andre Tardif (No. 78) lead Irvine in singles. . . . Irvine's men's and women's track teams play host to Stanford, Air Force, Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Los Angeles in a five-way meet Saturday at the UCI Track Stadium. The Anteater women are led by junior Toby Dean (Mission Viejo High), who won the 100- and 200-meter events Saturday as host Irvine finished third in a nine-way meet. Senior David Mayeda (University High), won the 400-meter intermediate hurdles as the men's team finished sixth. . . . The golf team is hoping to make it five in a row Monday and Tuesday during the 14th Anteater Invitational, a 19-team event at Coto de Caza. The Anteaters, ranked No. 25 in the country, have won the last four.