The UC Irvine men's volleyball team needs two more victories to become the first NCAA champion to repeat since UCLA won back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996.
The No. 2-seeded Anteaters (23-7) face No. 3-seeded Loyola of Chicago (22-9) in one semifinal on Thursday at 6 p.m. at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The winner will advance to face either top-seeded BYU (25-4) or Penn State (23-7), in the title match Saturday at 6 p.m.
Former UCI Coach John Speraw was a senior middle blocker on the 1995 national championship team. And while he left UCI last season after guiding the program to its third NCAA crown in three seasons, his legacy with this year's Anteaters is a point of contention for some.
"At the beginning of the season, [the players] were about showing that this wasn't the University of John Speraw," UCI senior setter Chris Austin said. "We wanted to show that this team can play Irvine volleyball and be successful without him as a coach. Although Speraw is a genius as a coach, [first-year head man David] Kniffin has run this team really well. We have taken a different approach in terms of how we are going to win matches and it has been successful for us."
One primary difference between Kniffin and Speraw is that Kniffin is less willing to work the players with marathon practices and exhaustive video study.
"Speraw was a lot more intense," UCI junior second-team All-American middle blocker Collin Mehring said. "He would drive the guys very hard and we would have long practices. Last year, we'd practice for three hours, but this year, we usually go two hours, then stretch or watch video. Last year, one of the ways we won was that we worked harder than anyone else. Kniff is more about taking care of your body. I think we train just as hard, but not as long."
Kniffin, who played for and was an assistant coach for five seasons under Speraw before leaving after the 2011 season to become a women's assistant at Illinois, has long credited Speraw, now the coach at UCLA and the U.S. men's national team, as a mentor.
But he too is sensitive to forging a new era of success, with new thinking at the top and even some different schemes on the court.
"As a first-year coach, I'm still trying to figure out specifically what it is I am going for," Kniffin said. "It will be different to compare and contrast five years from now, because this year is total discovery. I've got an idea of how I want to do things and I've got my theories based on experience. But this is the first time I'm driving the bus.
Kniffin said his familiarity with the players, some of whom lobbied for him to get the job, has helped him in his debut season running the show.
"What I appreciate is that guys have bought in," Kniffin said. "There are so many ways to win and we've seen so many coaches with so many different styles accomplish that ultimate competitive objective. But I think the most important piece is that the athletes buy in. As long as I have that, I don't know if it matters whether the practices are 45 minutes long or 21/2 hours."
It's the fifth Final Four appearance in eight seasons for UCI, which made its debut in 2006 at Penn State. The 'Eaters won titles in 2007 at Ohio State, 2009 at BYU and 2012 at USC.
Penn State, in the Final Four for a record 28th time, has two titles (1994 and 2008), while BYU has won three titles (1999, 2001, 2004) in five previous trips to the Final Four.
This is, however, Loyola's first Final Four and the Ramblers are trying to win only the school's second NCAA title, matching the victorious 1963 men's basketball team.
"It's the 50th anniversary of the basketball team's title and I've had friends come up to be [on campus] since we've made the Final Four and say 'This school wins a national championship every 50 years, so it's up to you guys and women's softball,' " Loyola junior libero Peter Jasaitis said Wednesday.
Loyola's maiden voyage was fueled by a steady growth in program funding, said 10th-year coach Shane Davis. Another element to the watershed season has been the play of 6-foot-6 sophomore outside hitter and Newport Harbor High product Cody Caldwell.
Caldwell, whose 2.48 kills per set rank third on the team, has 18 ace serves and 21 total blocks this season.
"He brings a huge volleyball IQ and a calmness to our team," Davis said of Caldwell, who was a consensus top-5 national recruit before committing to Loyola.
"When I took my visits to Long Beach State, Hawaii and Loyola, [Loyola] just seemed like the best fit," Caldwell said Wednesday. "Southern California gets to be a bubble at times and I thought Loyola would be a great change in my life."
He has changed the program, Davis said.
"That was a big win for us, because he was recruited by everyone," Davis said. "We didn't know if we had a great shot at him and we were waiting by the phone on signing day."
Caldwell said aiding the Ramblers' historic run, which ended a seven-match losing streak in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn. final by topping Lewis in five games, is part of why he chose to come to the school.
Caldwell will renew acquaintance with UCI players Zack La Cavera, Brinkley and Travis Woloson, all of whom he played with at Newport Beach-based Balboa Bay Volleyball Club.
It's the first men's Final Four appearance for UCI first-year assistant coach Michelle Bartsch, but she did play in the 2011 women's Final Four as a standout at the University of Illinois.
Bartsch, who helped the Illini reach the title match, before losing to UCLA in San Antonio, Texas, said both the men's and women's games have their strong points.
"The women's game draws bigger crowds," she said. "But I like watching the men's game more than the women's. I think it's more exciting."
Also happy to be back in Southern California this week is Penn State sophomore libero Connor Curry, a Newport Harbor High product whose Nittany Lions were defeated in the semifinals last year by UCI.