Even in its championship years, including NCAA titles the last two seasons and four of the last seven, the UC Irvine men's volleyball coaching staff has learned that the best-laid plans sometimes need major tweaking.
So after his team dropped a pulsating five-set match to defending Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season champion BYU, 19-25, 34-32, 21-25, 25-19, 15-12, on Wednesday at the Bren Events Center, second-year UCI head man David Kniffin stood calmly and asserted that his quest for the proper plan for this year's success remains, well, just as planned.
"We're figuring out how to win and we're getting close," said Kniffin, the 2013 Volleyball Magazine Coach of the Year who guided the Anteaters to the NCAA crown in his first season at the helm last year. "Actually, I'm pretty encouraged by our fight tonight. I thought that was the best we have actually battled. I don't know if the execution was there, but I think that is something that will come over time."
Once again, Kniffin started freshman Tamir Hershko at opposite in place of junior Zack La Cavera, and he moved freshman Michael Saeta in at setter after first trying Roberto Frazonni (at Pepperdine) and returner Daniel Stork (at USC) in the first two of its now three Mountain Pacific Sports Federation losses.
Kniffin also gave junior Travis Woloson the nod at outside hitter instead of Connor Hughes, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four last year after helping UCI upset then-top-ranked BYU in the final.
"It's looking for the right combination for us to gel," Kniffin said of his lineup selection process, much of which was decided soon after practice began. "In one sense, [lineup decisions] have already been made a month ago. When it comes down to the last second, when it is really happening in a match, we have to decide if we are going to stick with what we said we were going to do. And we have. I think that's just the right move. We set a course on how we were going to play in January and we're sticking to it. We're just not winning the matches we hoped we would win."
The loss dropped No. 7-ranked UCI to 3-4, 0-3 in conference. The 'Eaters were hoping that their first home match of the season and a crowd of 2,793 that included hundreds of BYU backers, would be enough to snap the recent skid.
But the No. 7-ranked Cougars (3-2, 3-0), who had opened 0-2, including a three-set setback to a Loyola of Chicago team that handed UCI its first loss this season, prevailed when it counted most.
The visitors, led by senior returning All-American Taylor Sander's 25 kills, nine digs, one solo block and three block assists, rallied from a 16-11 deficit to win an extended second set to even the match.
UCI captured Set 3, but was drubbed badly in the fourth set to force a deciding fifth game.
After BYU seized leads of 2-0, 5-2 and 10-6, kills by Hershko, who had a team-best 25 and hit .352, senior Jeremy Dejno (16 kills and a .314 hitting percentage) and Woloson (nine kills at .138 with two aces) pulled the hosts within one.
But BYU held on as sophomore opposite Carson Heninger, who came off the bench early in the second set, posted the last of his 17 kills to go with a .419 hitting percentage to complete the match and spark an energetic celebration from the visitors. BYU had won the two regular-season meetings with UCI last season, but was swept by the 'Eaters in the NCAA final at UCLA.
UCI hit .289 as a team, four points better than the Cougars, and the 'Eaters had the advantage in total blocks, 12-9.
BYU had one more dig than the hosts and the two teams both had six aces, while UCI missed one more serve, 16-15.
Kniffin said that the loss at Loyola kicked in a mind-set that UCI would use its schedule to try to find its best lineup for a run at the MPSF Tournament crown and an automatic bid into the six-team NCAA championships.
"As I look at our success every year, we've had to use some problem solving en route," Kniffin said. "This year, we just had more players, more depth and more parity, so we have to figure out the combination that's going to win."
It's a plan that has yet to come together.