IRVINE — Though the quantum leap of improvement expected by its coach is still somewhat down the road, the UC Irvine men's volleyball team took a flying leap toward confirming its status as one of the title contenders in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation on Friday night.
And the most high flying of the No. 2-ranked Anteaters in their 25-17, 23-25, 25-21, 25-16 MPSF victory over No. 5-ranked USC on Friday was junior outside hitter Kevin Tillie.
Tillie, who made his second start and has been coming back from an ankle sprain that sidelined him early in the season, had a match-high 18 kills to lead the winners (7-2, 3-2 in conference). He hit .567 with just one error in 30 swings and his hang time both at the net and out of the back row consistently provided a thrill for the crowd of 2,084 at the Bren Events Center.
"I think Tillie played better," UCI Coach John Speraw said of the veteran of the French junior national team who played his first two collegiate seasons in Canada. "I think he still has a lot of upside. I think he's still not 100% healthy or comfortable out there, but I really think he's getting better."
On one play early in the fourth game, Tillie gave UCI rooters a glimpse at the kind of ability that had created a buzz around him since his transfer.
He forced an ineffective pass with a booming jump serve, retreated behind the service line and took a running approach. He launched himself behind the 10-foot line and sailed all the way to the net, before hammering a bic set that produced a kill and gave UCI a 7-3 lead.
"I love the crowd and I get fired up when the crowd is standing up," Tillie said.
UCI clearly stood apart from the Trojans (3-3, 2-3), who have been their primary nemesis since the 'Eaters earned a five-game triumph in the 2009 NCAA final in Provo, Utah.
UCI's win ended a five-match losing streak to the Trojans, for whom senior All-American Tony Ciarelli found tough going against a defensive game plan designed primarily to stop him.
Ciarelli had a team-best 14 kills, but he hit .105 with 10 errors in 38 swings. He also had five service errors to go with his lone ace and drew a yellow card for verbally sparring with the official in the tower.
"I think you do spend a lot of time [game planning against Ciarelli], because he is an important part of what they do," said Speraw, who was impressed with his team's blocking and defense, particularly the strong play of freshman libero Michael Brinkley.
"Brinkley had a great match, one of the better matches we've had from a libero in a long time," Speraw said. "He was just all over the court defensively."
Brinkley shared the team dig lead with sophomore setter Daniel Stork with eight and Stork added 39 assists and four block assists.
Senior middle blocker Dan McDonnell matched senior opposite Carson Clark and sophomore middle Scott Kevorken with five block assists, as UCI posted a 13-4 edge in team blocks.
Clark (10 kills), McDonnell (six) and Kevorken (five) were also offensive threats, as was sophomore outside hitter Jeremy Dejno (nine kills).
Clark blasted four aces and McDonnell added three as UCI had eight aces and 15 service errors.
USC got a spark from junior outside hitter Jeff Carlson. The Corona del Mar High product had 12 kills, one ace and hit .304 off the bench.
"Carlson was great," Speraw said. "He was a big upgrade for them. I thought that he did some things from the service line, he made some plays defensively and he hit with some range. That made them better."
UCI now takes 13 days off before returning to action with two matches at Hawaii on Feb. 10 and 12.
"I'm actually excited about it, because we have a lot to work on," Speraw said.