UCI finds inspiration in sweep

IRVINE — First-year coach David Kniffin has said all season that his UC Irvine men's volleyball team has been searching for its identity. But maybe what it needed instead was a little attitude.

Playing with a revamped lineup that did not include the team's assist leader (Daniel Stork), total blocks leader (Collin Mehring) and it's No. 2 and No. 4 kill producers (Jeremy Dejno and Connor Hughes, respectively), the Anteaters swept visiting Cal State Northridge on Tuesday to close out Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play.

The 25-19, 25-19, 25-22 triumph, their third straight sweep and fourth consecutive victory, gave the No. 4-ranked Anteaters (21-6, 18-6 in conference), the No. 2 seed and a home quarterfinal match in the MPSF Tournament that begins April 20.

It also advanced a season-long process of finding the ideal mix of skill and competitive drive that Kniffin has been overseeing with a team that opened the season ranked No. 1, coming off a 2012 NCAA title.

"The team that is on the court right now is the team that I feel we need to finish out conference," said Kniffin, who saw junior middle blocker Scott Kevorken lead the way with 10 kills, a career-high-equaling seven block assists and a .500 hitting percentage. "I don't know that this is the team that is going to be on the court at the end of the year. But I think one of the nice things about this squad is they seem comfortable and it seems like there is a lot of trust in whoever we put on the court. That's something we didn't have at the beginning of the year. We talked about finding identity early and this team is starting to find that. That identity is: It's going to take all of us to get this done."

But Kniffin acknowledged that inserting 6-foot-9 freshman outside hitter Kyle Russell, the national player of the week after home sweeps against Stanford and Pacific last week, senior middle blocker Ian Castellana and senior setter Chris Austin has created a different dynamic.

"Any lineup I put on the court, I have faith in," Kniffin said. "And any lineup I put on the court now will have something to prove. But when we put this lineup out for the first time [last week], I think the difference was, this lineup had a little bit more of a chip on its shoulder than the previous lineup. And now I think we have a team of collective individuals who all have a chip on their shoulder. I think this lineup has inspired that a little bit."

Kevorken, who helped UCI hit .351 for the match, 191 points better than the No. 10-ranked Matadors (9-14, 11-14), also said the current lineup has provided a spark.

"I think we're playing some guys who really, really want to win." Kevorken said. "A new look to the team, especially the guys who haven't seen a lot of time this year, is really healthy. Guys who haven't seen the floor, really want to get out there and compete. It's all about the team at this point."

Sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera led the winners with 14 kills and added six block assists, while senior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie had eight kills on 15 swings, for a .400 proficiency rate. Tillie also had four block assists and one of the 'Eaters' two aces.

Austin had 31 assists and a .574 setting percentage, and his five digs matched sophomore libero Michael Brinkley for team-high honors.

UCI never trailed in the opening set and trailed only at 4-3 in Game 2. But Northridge took a 9-4 lead in Game 3, before UCI asserted itself to secure its 11th sweep of the campaign.

"We've had some ups and downs this season," Kevorken said. "And now, as history shows, it's our time to be up again."

UCI completes the regular season at home Saturday against No. 13-ranked Penn State at 7 p.m.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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