Kevin Tillie leads top-seeded UC Irvine against No. 4 seeded Penn State in a semifinal of the NCAA Championship Thursday at 6 p.m. at USC's Galen Center. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / January 13, 2012)

Even in board shorts and a T-shirt, Kevin Tillie raises eyebrows in his Newport Beach neighborhood, navigating somewhat skittishly along the cultural shore break that sometimes renders him a hopeless outsider.

"I'm getting better [with the cultural differences], but I still get people who recognize me and ask me 'Where are you from?' or a random 'You're not from around here,'" said Tillie, a native of France in his first season with the UC Irvine men's volleyball team.

His mildly discernible accent often gives him away, and prompts kidding from teammates who refer to him as [French] toast, Jean Pierre, or the less-provincial Tillie.

It is, however, when he takes the court that the 6-foot-5 outside hitter most noticeably separates himself from his peers. It is, oddly, within the confines of college volleyball that the high-flying Tillie orbits increasingly apart.

"Oh my God, he's unreal," said Tillie's UCI teammate, Connor Hughes, who recalls first witnessing the rather unique athleticism that made the transfer from Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada an instant commodity on his recruiting visit to Irvine.

"He came with us to hit some balls in the gym one morning and just started crushing balls," Hughes said. "We were all like, 'We've got to get this guy.'"

UCI Coach John Speraw was similarly motivated upon viewing a videotape of Tillie's play provided by a mutual friend.

"He's a pretty unique volleyball player," Speraw said of the first-team All-American who helped propel the Anteaters (24-5) to the No. 1 seed in the four-team NCAA Championship that begins Thursday at USC's Galen Center. UCI plays No. 4-seeded Penn State (23-5) at 6 p.m.

"I got that video and it sat on my computer for weeks," Speraw said. "But it was late January [2011] and we were at Penn State, having just played them. It was snowing outside, so me and [then-assistant] David Kniffin were just hanging out in our hotel room. I opened up my computer and decided it was time to watch the [Tillie] video. I bet you it was about three [Tillie] swings and I said 'Kniff, you've got to check this out.' He came over, watched a couple more swings and asked me what I wanted to do. I said 'I'm all in.' It didn't take long watching that video to figure out that this was a guy I wanted in my program."

Tillie, who said he needed a change after two collegiate seasons in Canada, found UCI almost by accident, when a player who knew his father, Laurent, suggested Speraw's program as a possible destination.

"It was just kind of luck, I guess," Tillie said of connecting with UCI, of which he knew nothing until he was convinced to visit.

"They put me in a Newport Beach house and I woke up in front of the ocean," Tillie, whose home town of Cagnes-sur-Mer is nestled between Cannes and Nice, said. "I Skyped my dad and he said 'commit, commit.'"

Tillie's father is a former French national team captain who coaches professional teams in Cannes, and wants to one day coach the French national team.

Tillie's mother, Caroline, played on the Dutch national team and Tillie's older brother, Kim, was a 6-11 forward who played basketball at the University of Utah from 2006 to 2010.

"I originally wanted to go to Utah, but transferring my grades from France to here was really complicated," said Tillie, who has played on the French junior national team and is, many believe, on a fast track toward the French men's national team. "So, I went to Canada for a couple years."

Transferring Tillie's talents — including rare all-around proficiency, a vertical leap that has prompted yet another nickname: Air France, and a visceral competitiveness that is as infectious as it is insatiable — into the Anteaters' lineup was hardly immediate.

A right-ankle sprain sustained in preseason training slowed Tillie's emergence as a starter. But, when he joined the lineup, his play allowed him to converse effortlessly with his teammates in the universal language of winning.

"That injury affected him for a while and that was a little disappointing," Speraw said. "And it's hard being a first-year player in [the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation], I don't care how talented you are. But when he's comfortable and playing Kevin Tillie volleyball, he can carry a heavy load for us."

In the MPSF semifinals and finals, both come-from-behind five-set victories against top-ranked USC and Stanford, respectively, Tillie led the Anteaters in kills (47 total) and digs (24, matching setter Chris Austin). He hit .372 against USC and .422 against Stanford. And this, despite aggravating that ankle sprain in Game 2 of the semifinals.

Tillie's per-set averages of 3.73 kills and 4.33 points lead the team, and he ranks third nationally with a .394 hitting percentage to help the 'Eaters hit an NCAA-best .356.

It is on the bic set, on which Tillie takes off from the 10-foot line that divides the front and back court, and, often camouflaged by a leaping middle attacker at the net, rockets the ball downward into the opponent's court — that Tillie's athleticism is most apparent.

His ability to literally launch himself, both vertically and horizontally, often proves too difficult to defend.

"He is gifted," said Speraw, who wondered aloud earlier this season whether Tillie might be the best outside hitter UCI has ever had. "He can rise and hang in the air and those are certainly nice traits if you are trying to run the bic. He has done that really well."

Yet it's his ability to block and dig opponents that Speraw cites as his most valuable contribution.

"Obviously, he can attack the ball, but the one thing that has been most notable since he got here was his outstanding defense."

Tillie said he is still mastering Southern California slang, but entering the NCAA Championship, he is far more conversant with his teammates and coaches.

"As far as winning, its the same thing in France," Tillie said of his pursuit of UCI's third national championship since 2007. "I don't want to lose. My mind-set is, I'll do anything I can to win."

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5