Men's Volleyball: Brinkley dug in at the top

It took Michael Brinkley all of 16 months to achieve the most lofty team and individual goals to which a college men's volleyball player can aspire.

Luckily for the UC Irvine sophomore libero, there is still this pesky perfection to pursue.

"I wanted to win a national championship and I wanted to be first-team All-American," said the mop-topped 5-foot-10 floor leader whose value to the 23-7 Anteaters goes well beyond his defensive dominance.

Brinkley crossed off the first of his gargantuan goals last season, when he helped UCI claim its third NCAA title in six seasons. The second goal became reality last week, when his 271 digs allowed him to join senior outside hitter Kevin Tillie as a first-team All-American.

This week, Brinkley hopes to add another NCAA crown when UCI makes its fifth appearance in eight years at the four-team NCAA Championship, beginning Thursday at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.

The 'Eaters (23-7) face Loyola of Chicago (22-9) in one semifinal on Thursday at 6 p.m. If victorious, No. 2-seeded UCI would then face either top-seeded BYU (25-4) or Penn State (23-7) in the final on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Brinkley admits to being thoroughly ahead of schedule in terms of accomplishment, but UCI Coach David Kniffin believes Brinkley's rare collection of talent rendered him destined for such greatness.

"You can watch the guy pass or dig a couple balls and know he is special," Kniffin said. "Then you talk to him and realize he is a fierce competitor."

Add that to a court vision that is virtually unmatched and it is no surprise that Brinkley has already garnered attention from the brain trust at USA Volleyball, Kniffin said.

"He does quite a bit for us," Kniffin said. "He has really become comfortable in his own skin and comfortable as a player this season, which has allowed us to really see the depth he brings to the court, which is cool for me. He has gone from being a digging libero to a court manager and that has been very special for me to see."

It is, however, what Brinkley sees in the split-second fragments that foretell a kill or a dig, that increases his success rate against prodigious blasts that commonly doom the most well-planned retrieval efforts to failure.

"One of the things that he does is see the play oftentimes before it develops," Kniffin said. "Volleyball can be a very reactionary game, but Brinkley doesn't react very much, because generally, he is already acting upon what will happen. So, when the ball is coming at him, he is already intuited where it is going to be. As the play is developing, he sees the set and is simultaneously processing the height and speed of the set, with the speed of the [attacker's] approach and the positioning of our two blockers at the net. He then sticks himself right in the funnel. He's able to process that all before the play develops and he does it at a level that has now become intuitive. He is doing this all unconsciously as he is playing the game. That can be typical of the position, because they are specialists who usually get a lot of repetitions. But the degree to which he has attained proficiency has happened sooner for him than with most college liberos."

All this, combined with quickness and speed, help Brinkley regularly make digs that are seemingly impossible and, hence, inspirational.

"The plays that he makes are unreal sometimes," UCI freshman outside hitter Kyle Russell said. "Sometimes I catch myself watching him and thinking 'Did that really just happen?'"

Yet largely unnoticed outside the team huddle, is the leadership Brinkley displays between points.

"He has the ability to manage the personalities on the court, as well as he can manage the ball," Kniffin said. "I think he does process the game at a little different level. For me, working with Brinkley is less about me coaching him and more about me managing a dialogue with him during a match. He tells me what he is seeing and I tell him what I am seeing. I feel like our defensive scheme is constantly evolving. And sometimes, I am not even involved, because he can just make those adjustments on his own."

Brinkley said a constant flux in personnel for UCI this season has made his leadership even more valuable.

"I think it's important for me to make them feel comfortable on the court," Brinkley, a product of Edison High, said of his teammates.

Brinkley said he relies on assistant coaches Michelle Bartsch and Kevin Carroll to help correct any flaws he may encounter, though he said no one is more demanding of him than himself.

"I'm probably a perfectionist in general," Brinkley said. "Even if I have one bad pass, I know there is room for improvement. It's great for me to approach practice as just one more day to get better, even if you are only working on one skill."

Regardless of the outcome at UCLA, Brinkley will have two more seasons at UCI in which to improve. Dig that, Anteater opponents.

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