UC Irvine hopes for two in a row
UCI could be first team since UCLA to win consecutive titles
LOS ANGELES -- Defending a Men’s NCAA Volleyball Championship is a rare occurrence and while UC Irvine has no illusions about its difficulty, the team is not overly obsessive about achieving the rare feat.
The Anteaters (24-7) have downplayed the possibility of becoming the first team to win consecutive titles since UCLA did it in 1995 and 1996. The Bruins made repeating appear easy. UCLA has dominated the men’s division the last four decades, winning 19 titles and three or more consecutive titles. The only other team to win back-to-back championships was Pepperdine in 1985-86.
But the members of the UCI squad are just happy to be here. They received the lone at-large berth and know they are the underdog for Saturday’s championship game against top-seeded BYU.
“I didn't feel that pressure,” UCI junior outside hitter Connor Hughes said. “I don't think I felt that the entire year. Each year I think we play point-to-point in games and we just had a good year. I think it's a very loose feeling we have, we always talk about playing loose and that it should never be that tight.”
I don’t think there was too much pressure,” junior middle blocker Scott Kevorken said. “Obviously it’s a high intensity game, but I feel like we have a lot of experience from last year and being in the semifinals has really helped us.”
Senior setter Chris Austin said taking away the pressure of becoming defending champions has been easy.
“There's no pressure,” Austin said. “Every single match is its own individual. We don't feel as if we're defending anything. We're coming here as an at-large. We're not coming in as a team that's defending. We're just going to come in and focus on our game. We think that at the end of the day our victory or loss is going to be determined by us and not anyone else.”
While the team is relaxed, everyone is definitely focused on the championship and their opponent.
“It goes with the culture we’ve built here over the years with the guys that have been here before us and the guys that are here now,” sophomore outside hitter Travis Woloson said. “We don't want anything short of a championship. I've learned a lot from the guys that have been here before and I think that's why we are still here today.”
That doesn’t mean the team isn’t in awe of the top-ranked Cougars that beat them twice during the regular season.
“There's a ton of talent,” Austin said. “They all have great hitters. It's a bigger challenge for us defensive-wise to try to get some of the balls that maybe other teams couldn't have to see if we can try and stop them and slow them down.”
Head Coach David Kniffin doesn’t think the disparity in talent between the two teams is so wide and has been reinforcing that belief to his players all season.
“BYU is a team that we've been planning to play in this moment since last year,” Kniffin said. “What BYU has coming at us right now is a very hot offense. Offensively, they are just a really tough team to stop. Our keys obviously are going to be to slow down their outsides and slow down their middles. If we can do that I think we will be okay.”