Even as they towered over most of their teammates and competitors, and flew high over the net, the 6-foot-7 Collin Mehring and 6-9 Kyle Russell operated well below the radar last season with the UC Irvine men's volleyball team.
Mehring, a junior middle blocker, redshirted in 2010, then played in only one match in each of his next two seasons. There were times last season when, unable to crack the 12-man lineup for intrasquad scrimmages, the product of St. Francis High near San Jose would work the scoreboard during practices with the 2012 NCAA champion Anteaters.
Russell, another Northern California recruit out of Del Oro High in Loomis, near Sacramento, redshirted last season and, due to injuries, had not played much until late in the regular season this year.
When it came to paying their dues, these two were certainly big spenders.
But as the No. 2-seeded Anteaters (23-7) make their fifth NCAA Final Four appearance in the last eight seasons in search of the program's fourth national title since 2007, Mehring is a second-team All-American and second-team All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation honoree. Mehring led the MPSF with a .483 hitting percentage, his 1.20 blocks per set rank No. 6 nationally, and he has been one of the more consistent performers for first-year head coach David Kniffin.
Russell, who began playing volleyball as a 5-10 high school freshman, overcame a strained left Achilles tendon and a broken right foot to work his way into the starting lineup and earn National Player of the Week honors in early April.
Together the Breakthrough Brothers figure to have four large hands in whether the Anteaters can get past semifinal opponent Loyola of Chicago (Thursday at 6 p.m. at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion). Should UCI advance to the title match, in which it has not lost in three previous tries, it would meet either No. 1 seeded BYU or No. 4-seeded Penn State on Saturday at 6 p.m, also at Pauley Pavilion.
"To be honest, I don't think anybody did," sophomore All-American libero Michael Brinkley said when asked if he saw the duo's emergence coming. "But one year has really made a huge difference for both of them. From last year to this year, Collin has become a completely different person. He was a little quiet last season, but this year, he is starting and hitting for great numbers."
Even Russell and Mehring were not convinced before this season that the other would become a key contributor.
"Last year, [Mehring] wasn't really a factor," Russell said. "But in our first fall tournament in Argentina, he just came out of the woodwork and showed how offensive he can be and how aggressive he could play. It has been impressive."
Mehring was similarly surprised about Russell's sudden rise.
"I didn't see him coming at all," Mehring said. "Not that many people at his position are that tall, so I knew he could be good. But I didn't expect it to happen until a couple years down the line."
Kniffin, a former UCI player and assistant who took over when John Speraw left for UCLA after 10 seasons at Irvine, has used uncommon depth to deploy several different lineups this season. UCI's postseason run last season featured several key contributions off the bench and the theme has carried over this year.
"I think [the emergence of Mehring and Russell] speaks to how Irvine has been successful," Kniffin said. "You can look back at Ryan Ammermann [an All-American setter as a fifth-year senior and first-year full-time starter who led the 2009 NCAA championship run] and some others who seemed to come out of nowhere. But these out-of-nowhere guys are coming from a training environment in which they are competing in practice against the best guys in the nation everyday. So if you take a guy who has something to prove and who clearly has the physical ability, there is nothing that is going to harden them up to compete in the MPSF any more than competing in our gym everyday. There is no book, no sports psychologist or outside experience that could give them what this training environment gives them everyday. I think that's special.
"We don't want players in our gym who are choosing the path of least resistance," Kniffin said. "We take care of our players, but we don't want guys who feel that they need to be catered to or will be given anything. We aren't going to stay in the nicest hotels, like some other programs, and we may have three to a room sometimes. It's a hardening experience to be here, so if that's what kids are looking for, this is still a great place to be."
Mehring was National Player of the Week after helping UCI win the season-opening UC Santa Barbara Tournament, in which he was named MVP and hit 1.000 with 11 kills in a victory over Cal Baptist. His 14 block assists against BYU on March 1 were a school record.
"It has been a fun ride," said Mehring, a computer science engineering major who walked on at UCI. "I think the fact that other teams didn't expect much from me helped me start really strong. In the latter half of the season, I started getting blocked a lot more, so my role changed from getting kills to drawing blockers.
"The first couple years here, I was behind, but I kept working. Toward the end of last season, I felt like I could go in and compete against our guys in practice. I think that kind of forced me to reach the level I'm at now."
Russell said getting healthy, honing his ball-control skills and building his confidence all helped transform him into an intimidating hitting presence who figures to torment blockers and back-row players for years.
"I did feel behind, coming from Northern California, where the level of volleyball isn't what it is down here," Russell said. "I knew I had a lot to work on, so that pushed me more."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun