Clark is 'Eaters' quiet icon

Perfection for most, is an abstract concept; something to be pursued, yet never attained.

It's not quite the same dynamic for Carson Clark, whose physical gifts allow for the possibility of achieving perfection on any given play. Blessed with a powerful left arm, rare jumping ability that can put opposing blockers in the lower periphery of his vision, and enough experience to detect gaps in the most well-conceived defenses, Clark's ability to stockpile kills and diminish the collective confidence of UC Irvine opponents — all the while manifesting a California cool that is also integral to his undeniable star power — has made him nothing less than a college volleyball icon.

When things are going his way, which is about the same percentage of time that sunshine dominates the Orange County weather forecast, Clark can fill a stat sheet, help his nationally ranked team string together victories and perhaps even set a few hearts aflutter among the fawning fans who admire more than his game.

Still, the 6-foot-5 opposite from Santa Barbara, a four-year starter and two-time All-American who ranks atop the UCI career list in kills (1,772) and service aces (169), manages to mix in enough genuine humility to produce a shoulder-shrugging lack of pretension.

So it is that the ability to manage inevitable frustration, even failure, has represented the most difficult lesson of his quickly dissipating collegiate career.

"Players are going to get dug and blocked," said Clark, whose Anteaters (20-5, 16-5 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) complete their regular season at UC San Diego on Saturday at 7 p.m. "And basketball players are going to miss shots. I didn't like it at the start. I was very against the idea of getting blocked and dug. But it makes you get better and hit a better shot and be more intelligent with your swings. That's something that I've had to work on. It doesn't bother me as much as it used to, because I know it happens to everyone."

Clark's ascension at UCI was almost immediate. After redshirting the 2008 season, he displaced a returning All-American to become the starting opposite, then helped Coach John Speraw's squad earn its second NCAA title in three seasons in 2009. He was the MPSF Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-American.

He collected first-team All-American honors as a sophomore and was a second-team All-American as a junior, earning first-team All-MPSF laurels both years.

In the summer before his junior campaign, Clark played with the U.S. national team at the 2010 World Championships, and helped Team USA win gold at the 2010 Pan America Cup. Before his 2011 season at Irvine, Clark represented his country in the World University Games.

As he has all four seasons, Clark leads the Anteaters in kills with 325. And his ace average (.54 per set) shares the top spot nationally to help UCI lead the nation with 1.71 aces per set.

Clark is also hitting .337 to help UCI rank No. 1 nationally at .353. UCI, ranked No. 2, is second nationally in kills per set at 13.73.

"He's been a four-year starter in the MPSF, which is a very rare thing," Speraw said. "That, in itself, speaks volumes. Carson has been a multiple All-American and a fixture for us. He's just been a great offensive weapon for us and his development has included his service game, his defense in the back court and his blocking. He has shown he's dedicated to continually improve himself as a volleyball player."

Speraw said Clark's skill set puts him in rarefied air.

"He's a high-riser and he's got a great arm, a loose arm that can generate some pop, which he has been able to transition from the front court to the service line," Speraw said. "He has probably become the most dominant server in the game right now."

Clark had 532 kills in 2011 and 541 in 2010, but said the emergence of outside hitters Jeremy Dejno (268 kills with a .351 percentage) and Kevin Tillie (230 kills with a .387 percentage) this season, as well as a more offensive corps of middle blockers, has helped promote greater balance and kept defenses honest.

"Tillie is playing huge and Dejno is playing big," Clark said. "I don't have to be the kill leader every match. Every guy who is playing is able to contribute."

Clark said he was unaware that he had moved atop the school's all-time kills list and that only one achievement, adding an NCAA title this season, remains important in his career.

"That's pretty cool," Clark said of his status as the program's kills leader. "But it means more to me that we've won while I was here. I don't care as much about a legacy as I care about our team winning this year."

An NCAA championship as a senior would be a fitting bookend to the one he helped earn as a freshman. As an ending to a college career, some might even call it perfection.

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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