Sign of the times

Dedra Butler, UC Irvine Assistant Athletic Director of Academics & Student Affairs, left, gets her t-shirt autographed by volleyball players Michael Brinkley, center, and Michael Saeta, right, after a ceremony celebrating the Anteaters' back-to-back NCAA men's volleyball national championship on Tuesday7. (KEVIN CHANG / May 7, 2013)

  • Related
  • Photo Gallery: UCI men's volleyball celebration Photo Gallery: UCI men's volleyball celebration

IRVINE — Events such as Tuesday's NCAA title celebration on campus might be becoming familiar to the UC Irvine men's volleyball team. But if one wondered about complacency creeping in after the Anteaters claimed their second straight championship and fourth in the last seven seasons, one need only point to first-year head coach David Kniffin.

For, less than 24 hours after reaching collegiate athletics' ultimate summit, Kniffin was, in his words, cruising up to the top of nearby Saddleback Mountain, a roughly 15-hour round trip that covers nearly 3,000 feet of elevation.

"I got rained on a little bit," Kniffin said of his "peaceful and detached" Sunday hike, every step of which he said he was pondering the magnitude of what he and the Anteaters had accomplished by sweeping top-seeded BYU on Saturday at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.

With its 25-23, 25-22, 26-24 victory, UCI (25-7) became the first repeat NCAA champion in 17 years and the first to sweep consecutive title-match opponents since 1982-83. UCI has now captured NCAA crowns in 2013, 2012, 2009 and 2007, matching USC for third-most all-time. Only UCLA (19) and Pepperdine (five) have won more.

"But I still don't think it had sunk in," Kniffin said of the championship victory during his Holy Jim Trail ascent. "With every step, I was kind of thinking to myself, 'Did we really just win the national championship?'"

Even though it was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, 2013 was a somewhat unlikely road for UCI, which lost iconic coach John Speraw to UCLA after last season, said goodbye to a pair of senior All-Americans, and had already lost twice to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation champion Cougars, who entered the final 26-4.

"On the heels of winning [an NCAA] championship, based on turnover in staff, and losing Carson Clark [a four-time All-American who is the program's all-time kills leader], we had enough turnover where people looked at our team and went 'Yeah, Irvine is going to be good, but won't maybe be the team they were last year,'" said Kniffin, a former UCI setter and assistant coach who left after the 2011 season to become a women's assistant at the University of Illinois.

"Now, having won it back-to-back, I think people might say, 'I guess it doesn't really matter what the team composition is, Irvine is going to figure out a way.' And that presents new challenges for us."

Kniffin was hesitant to embrace the dynasty label that some have connected to a proficiency for title accumulation that only UCLA (which won four straight from 1981-84 and has won three in a row two other times] has ever exceeded.

"I don't know, I guess I'm not good at defining what a dynasty is," said Kniffin, who along with Chancellor Michael Drake, Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Susan Bryant and senior setter Chris Austin, and emcee Rob Espero addressed a crowd of about 250 in Crystal Cove auditorium at the school's student center. "I'm conjuring up images of families that ran an ancient culture for thousands of years, so four in seven doesn't sound like a long time to me. Maybe if we win it one more time.

"But I am excited as a new coach to face the new challenges we face as a program," Kniffin said. "We will absolutely [no longer] be an underdog team. Teams are going to look at us and say, 'Here comes UC Irvine ... Success here is no longer winning a conference championship. Success here, in men's volleyball, is winning a national championship.'"

Kniffin said he is prepared to continue that quest next season, though he will replace both volunteer assistant coaches, Michelle Bartsch and Kevin Carroll, and lose two-time All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie, Austin, who was twice an All-NCAA Tournament performer, and middle blocker Ian Castellana to graduation.

UCI will, however, return first-team All-American libero Michael Brinkley, middle blockers Collin Mehring (a second-team All-American) and Scott Kevorken (a second-team All-MPSF honoree), as well as decorated outside hitters Connor Hughes (the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player), Jeremy Dejno (All-MPSF in 2012) and heralded freshman Kyle Russell (a National Player of the Week this season).

"I think [the 6-foot-9 Russell, who started the semifinal win over Loyola of Chicago on Thursday] is a sleeper who is still just scratching the surface of what he can be as a player," Kniffin said.

In addition, Daniel Stork, who started most of this season at setter, is back, as is starting opposite Zack La Cavera and super sub Travis Woloson.

UCI could very well be ranked No. 1 in the 2014 preseason poll, a concept not lost on Drake.

"I'm proudly wearing my 2012 championship ring," Drake said. "And I will say that we celebrate today and in a couple of days, start working on getting one for the thumb."