NCAA Men's Volleyball Notebook: 'Eaters, Cougars collide for NCAA crown

With the possible exception of the Olympic Games, it can be argued that there is no bigger stage for a men's volleyball player than the NCAA Championship.

UC Irvine (24-7), which battles BYU (26-4) in the NCAA title match on Saturday at 6 p.m. at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, is making its fourth appearance in seven seasons under what first-year Anteaters Coach David Kniffin calls "the big lights."

Remarkably, UCI has won each of its three previous trips to the championship match (2012, 2009 and 2007) and has won seven straight Final Four matches since a semifinal setback in its debut appearance in 2006.

Even more impressive, BYU takes an 8-1 Final Four record into this year's final, having captured crowns in 2004, 2000 and 2009. It lost in the 2004 title match in its only other previous appearance.

But with 11 players on the roster that experienced last season's title run, Kniffin acknowledged that his team may have an advantage in terms of rising to the big occasion. UCI could become the first school to win back-to-back crowns since UCLA 1995-96.

"You learn a lot in those championship moments," Kniffin said. "When those big lights go on, things change. It's something that we've had an opportunity to experience firsthand, from our players to our staff … Things change [over the years], but there is some confidence, not just in the UCI logo, but the experience of being in that moment."

•In their competitive moments this season, however, BYU has the edge. The Cougars defeated UCI in four sets at home on Jan. 18 and rallied after losing the first two sets and trailing, 19-14, in the third set, for a five-set triumph at the Bren Events Center on March 1.

But both coaches said changes in personnel for UCI limit any foreshadowing drawn from those two matches.

"We are kind of pushing the reset button, in terms of our expectations for them, because I don't know if we'll see the same team," BYU Coach Chris McGown said. "They will have a different setter, probably, and a different outside hitter. And, we don't know where [UCI senior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie] is at with respect to his health.

"But certainly I think we can take some confidence from the fact that we were in a really tough spot [at UCI] and came back to win," McGown said.

•UCI lineup changes from the first two BYU matches are led by senior Chris Austin replacing junior Daniel Stork at setter. Connor Hughes started at opposite for Zach La Cavera in the first regular-season BYU match, while freshman Jason Agopian started for junior Scott Kevorken in the middle in the second regular-season match.

"To play a team with one setter and then a different one, it's like you are playing a completely different team," Kniffin said. "[Austin] is a different style of setter than [Stork]."

•Few could argue that one of the top two teams in the nation this season will come away with their school's fourth national title on Saturday.

UCI was ranked No. 1 in the preseason national poll, while BYU was ranked No. 2. And, in 16 polls this season, the two schools have combined for 16 No. 1 rankings, including two weeks in which they shared the top spot.

•Then-senior Will Montgomery delivered what, by all accounts, was a uniquely moving and inspirational pre-match pep talk to his UCI teammates before last year's final win over host USC.

This year, the honor will go to sophomore reserve outside hitter Travis Woloson.

"I'll have a few things prepared," Woloson said Friday, declining to give away any secrets. Woloson did say he has been in contact with Montgomery to try to maximize the impact of this year's oratory.

•Kniffin acknowledged the impact of another Will, senior Will Thomas, on this year's team. Thomas, a fiery, though little-used libero known for his spirited sideline presence, still resonates with this UCI team. Kniffin said, despite the fact that Thomas was sidelined in March by academic issues.

"It's a goal of mine to make sure we play with a little bit of that Will Thomas passion," Kniffin said Friday. "Will has made an impression on the program that not many guys get to make. Guys like the Spittle brothers [Paul, Nick and Anthony ] and a few others are guys who made that blue-collar mentality just an intrinsic part of our program. And Will Thomas continues to do that for us. [Woloson] keeps that fire burning for us, and we've got to make sure we have a guy like that, because you can't quantify the value of guys like that."

•BYU's top two weapons, 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter Taylor Sander, and 6-8 freshman opposite Ben Patch, both first-team All-Americans, touch 11-9 and 11-11, respectively, with their vertical leap, Kniffin said. By contrast, Kevin Tillie, UCI's 6-6 senior All-American outside hitter, touches 11-7.

•Should UCI win, Kniffin would become only the second first-year coach to claim an NCAA title. Rod Wilde is the lone rookie champion, having guided Pepperdine to the top in 1986.

•Patch, 18, who many believe is the element that put BYU over the top this season, will try to make the most of his NCAA moment Saturday. He said he will leave in September for his LDS mission that will sideline him from competition for the next two years.

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