Men’s Volleyball: UCI’s Austin blazing trail

(KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot)

Chris Austin has already made volleyball history. But that he will likely be considered less icon than iconoclast bothers him little.

The first African-American setter to guide an NCAA men’s title winner last year, Austin is in position to duplicate his journey from virtual volleyball oblivion to the biggest stage the collegiate game has to offer.

But while he appreciates the novelty of his unlikely ascension, he is hardly conflicted about accepting credit. If one is curious about his talent, one need merely ask the 6-foot-3 UC Irvine senior.

“I’m not a person who lacks confidence,” said Austin, who by sheer force of will has emerged as the catalyst for an Anteaters squad attempting to become the first repeat NCAA champion since UCLA went back-to-back in 1995-96. “I have a high volleyball IQ, so even back when I wasn’t ahead of the curve in terms of setting, I was mentally, so I could always make things happen.”

Austin has indeed made things happen, ever since ditching basketball for a sport he had never seen before his freshman year at Coronado High in Henderson, Nev.

Lured, or more accurately bribed to attend his first to his first volleyball practice in 2006, by a friend’s offer to buy him lunch, Austin initially displayed little taste for the basics of the sport. But it wasn’t long before he was devouring online volleyball videos in order to separate himself from his landlocked peers.

“I fell in love with volleyball,” Austin said of the game he once considered “a girls’ sport. I’m addicted still.”

Austin evolved from a go-to junior outside hitter to a senior who split his time between setting and hitting in a 6-2 offensive scheme. A prep All-American and two-time state finalist, Austin was convinced he was merely an opportunity away from the highest level of collegiate competition. So, he ventured to the University of Hawaii to pursue that dream.

“But I wound up getting cut from the team,” said Austin, who quickly called in a favor from a coach at Long Beach City College, where he was a first-team all-conference setter for two seasons and twice led the Vikings to the state semifinals.

Hawaii came calling once again, but lost out to then-UCI Coach John Speraw, whose top assistant, David Kniffin, took over the reigns when Speraw left for UCLA prior to this season.

“After having one conversation with him, I knew this was a kid we needed to take a chance on,” Kniffin said. “He was one of the most driven guys I’d ever seen. He was so into what he was doing. We didn’t think he would necessarily do it in the traditional way. He might not have the prettiest hands and the best location, but we figured he’d find a way to win.”

Finding his way into the lineup as a junior proved difficult, but Austin used his first 13 matches on the bench to adapt and learn. When then-starter Daniel Stork was sidelined by a concussion, Austin stepped in and flourished.

Using athleticism, leadership and enough volleyball skill to distribute to a talented cast of hitters, Austin and the ‘Eaters reeled off nine straight wins on their way to a 16-2 finish that included six straight wins to end their third NCAA title campaign in six seasons.

“He moves around the court well and gets to a lot of balls and he digs some balls,” Kniffin said of his trail-blazing trigger man. “But he’s not an outstanding defender, he’s not an outstanding blocker and, quite frankly, he’s not an outstanding setter. The thing he brings that is perhaps most valuable is his perspective on the game, on winning and on team culture. He’s our nonconformist, but he is a catalyst.”

Austin said his relentless desire to win fuels an on-court persona that took some getting used to.

“I don’t see too many setters who play the game like me, physically or verbally” said Austin, who began this season as a backup, before displacing Stork in the starting lineup on April 5 to spark a four-match win streak (all sweeps). No. 3-ranked UCI (22-6) is the No. 2 seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament that begins with a quarterfinal against No. 7-seeded UC Santa Barbara on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Bren Events Center. “I think my team could attest to that. I still get jokes about how I do things, but that’s kind of my signature. I want to be remembered as somebody who brought his own style and changed the dynamic of the game.”

That dynamic often includes impromptu on-court pep talks with his teammates.

“I’m going to be pretty verbally intense with my guys,” Austin said. “If they aren’t playing to their potential, I will get in their face. I think that’s part of being a setter.”

Austin’s audible jousts initially rubbed some Anteaters the wrong way, Kniffin said. But both Austin and his peers have come to realize that the setter has the best interests of the team at heart.

“Chris has done a better job understanding how to engage with his teammates without losing them and managing situations,” Kniffin said. “I also think our players have come a long way at understanding that Chris is there for the same reason they are, with the same objective and motivation.”

Austin said that motivation stems from a structured childhood with his mother, Anita.

“She made me work for every single thing I got from the time I was 5 years old,” Austin said. “I did my own laundry and my own dishes. She insisted I was diligent.”

Austin has brought a similar conviction to the volleyball court.

“Everyone has different motivation,” Austin said. “My motivation comes from having nothing. There were times when I didn’t have opportunities and I had a ton of doubters, people who didn’t believe I could do it. I’ve always wanted to prove those people wrong.”

Austin said he is proud to be the first African-American setter to win a national title. And, destined for a career in coaching after graduating in June with a degree in public health, he said he hopes to continue to advocate for more diversity in the sport.

“It’s definitely a big deal to me,” said Austin, who coaches the Long Beach-based High Line Volleyball Club boys’ 17-year-old team that includes African-American, Latino and Samoan players. The team, which had crude beginnings, is ranked No. 3 nationally in its age group. “It’s cool, because you always want to be a trend-setter. I want to encourage people from other sports to want to be volleyball players.”

Kniffin said Austin’s impact on the game is noteworthy.

“Any time there’s a first, its a big deal,” Kniffin said. “I know it generated excitement and respect. If people identify with him or consider him an inspiration on any level, that’s cool.”

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5