Men's Volleyball Preview: UCI chasing crown again

For a program that has grown so accustomed to winning, perhaps the greatest accomplishment achieved by UC Irvine men's volleyball is its ability to withstand loss.

After capturing their third NCAA title in six seasons in 2012, the Anteaters last season absorbed the loss of their figurehead, leader and coach, John Speraw, as well as a four-time All-American in Carson Clark, who just happens to be the school's all-time kills leader.

The result was yet another national crown that first-year coach and former Speraw assistant David Kniffin trumpeted as a triumph of the culture of success that permeates the program.

Kniffin now knows the drill, but the Anteaters once again lost not only their best player in two-time first-team All-American Kevin Tillie, but setter Chris Austin, who triggered the attack down the stretch of the first back-to-back title runs since UCLA repeated as champion in 1995 and 1996.

Still, the 'Eaters were ranked atop the preseason national poll and picked third in the preseason Mountain Pacific Sports Federation coaches' poll.

"We're the defending national champion for two years in a row and so I think there is some cache that comes with that," said Kniffin, who welcomes 10 returning letterman , including three 2013 All-Americans, as well as the NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player. "I think a lot of people have this impression of UC Irvine volleyball that is based on last year and I don't think that's very accurate.

Kniffin did little to add clarity by electing not to play fall matches, a practice used by most programs to help them learn about themselves, as well as the competition, months before the season begins.

"I thought we needed to decompress," Kniffin said of his team's lack of matches in the fall. "We were so wrapped up, both emotionally and physically, in our pursuit of our competitive objective last year that I think we were beat up after the season."

The 'Eaters also left the postseason competition nursing a few wounds in 2013, when they finished second in the MPSF regular season, then ran the table in the MPSF and NCAA tournaments and swept MPSF regular-season champion BYU in the title match.

UCI's weaponry this season includes junior libero Michael Brinkley, a first-team All-American and All-MPSF performer a year ago. Senior middle blockers Collin Mehring and Scott Kevorken, as well as NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player Connor Hughes, a senior outside hitter, are additional players with impressive credentials.

The 6-foot-7 Mehring was second-team All-American and All-MPSF last season, while the 6-9 Kevorken earned second-team All-MPSF and third-team All-American laurels after a dominant title-match performance against BYU.

Mehring, who hit .500 with 188 kills and a team-best 134 total blocks, joined Brinkley and Hughes as preseason All-Americans.

Kevorken hit .484 with 178 kills and 122 total blocks in 2012.

Hughes' 195 kills were fourth-best on the roster, but the man they call Condor rose to a higher level in the postseason.

Zack La Cavera, a 6-4 junior returning starter at opposite, had 280 kills last season, second only to Tillie's 395, and his 69 total blocks ranked third on the squad. He also was second to Tillie with 26 aces last season and starred in the final victory over BYU.

Senior Jeremy Dejno, a first-team All-MPSF performer as a sophomore, had 241 kills last season to rank third on the team. He has, for the most part, been an observer during the last two postseasons, but has shown the ability to be a dominant force at the net and at the service line throughout his career.

Kyle Russell, a 6-9 sophomore outside hitter, earned National Player of the Week accolades late last season and should be another player that Kniffin can enlist at the pins, as is 6-4 junior Travis Woloson, whose catalytic presence allows him to contribute on and off the floor in a variety of roles.

Daniel Stork, a 6-4 senior who has started parts of the last two seasons, is nearly fully recovered from offseason hip surgery and is fighting off challenges for the setting job from 6-5 freshman Michael Saeta and 6-2 junior Roberto Frazzoni, an import from Chile.

Kniffin said he will also call upon backup middle blockers Jason Agopian, a 6-7 sophomore who started on occasion last season, and 6-5 freshman Michael Benz, who is a potent threat offensively, according to Kniffin.

Phillip Friedman, a 6-5 freshman outside hitter, and Tamir Hershko, a 6-6 freshman opposite out of Israel, where he played on the junior national team before serving his two years of compulsory military service, are additional players in the mix.

"We will need the entire bench this year, as we have in spurts the past two years," Kniffin said. "But it's even harder for me to figure out my starting six this year."

With the six-team NCAA Championships being hosted by Loyola of Chicago this season, Kniffin lined up a three-match road trip to the Windy City and Indiana where the 'Eaters will face Lewis (Jan. 1), Loyola (Jan. 2) and Ball State (Jan. 4).

UCI opens its season Friday at Concordia, the reigning NAIA champion coached by former UCI assistant Shawn Patchell, and plays its first home matches on Dec. 28, doubleheader against the University of British Columbia and Red Deer, another Canadian team.

The MPSF opener is Jan. 10 at Pepperdine and UCI plays host to UCLA, led by Speraw, on Feb. 1 at the Bren Events Center.

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