LOS ANGELES — Magnifique!
You could throw in just about any superlative in French that can describe UC Irvine’s Kevin Tillie, a 6-foot-6 junior outside hitter who ended up in Southern California from Cagnus-sur-Mer, France, by way of the Canaidan school Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia.
“It’s kind of lucky, I guess,” Tillie said Thursday after his Anteaters defeated Penn State 3-1 in the first semifinal of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship at USC’s Galen Center. Tillie had a match-high 21 kills, while hitting a remarkable .500, and eight digs in the 18-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-19 victory that propelled the Anteaters into Saturday night’s national-title match.
“He was unstoppable at times,” Penn State big man Joe Sunder said. Especially in the third set, when Tillie had seven kills in 12 attempts with no errors. When Tillie got out of high school, he tried to go to BYU — also a men’s volleyball powerhouse — but “there was some problem with transferring grades from France to the United States,” he said. “So I went to Canada.”
After two years, he was still longing to play college volleyball at the highest level. And then it became a case of who knew who. His dad, who is now a coach in France and who attended Thursday’s match, was on the 1992 French Olympic team. His mother, Caroline — by the way — played professionally in Holland. Anyway, his dad talked to one of his volleyball friends who knew Irvine coach John Speraw.
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“It was pretty out of the blue,” Speraw said. “I had heard rumors a couple of years before about this French kid who was going to BYU. It never materialized and I never thought much about it until I got this email from this player. He said, ‘This player is better than I was at the same age.’ And this player who was sending me this was a really good volleyball player. So I was immediately interested.”
Speraw was able to get some video of Tillie, “but we were in the middle of the season, so the video sat on my computer for a few weeks before I ever looked at it.
“We were actually at Penn State [in January 2011] and it was snowing outside, there was nothing to do after the match.”
So finally he decided to look at video of the French kid.
“I looked at a few swings and I said to my assistant coach at the time, ‘C’mon over here and look at this.’ We get lots and lots of video so it’s a rare day when you get video and see somebody you’re actually interested in. He watched a few swing and he looked at me and asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I said, ‘I’m all in on this. We’ve got to do everything we can.’ Because at this point I knew BYU was interested, and shortly thereafter USC was interested and then UCLA was interested, so we had to do everything we could to get Kevin to join us.”
Kevin’s older brother, 6-11 Kim, played basketball at Utah — that’s why Kevin was originally interested in BYU — and is now playing in Lyon on a team owned by Frenchman Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. Because he has dual citizenship, Kim is also a member of the Dutch senior national team. And Laurent is quick to point out that his youngest child, 14-year-old Killian, is probably the best athlete of the three.
Laurent Tillie said it was his dream to play sports in the U.S., but could not, so he’s thrilled that his sons have.
“Kevin has spirit. He is always enjoying himself,” Laurent Tillie said. “He gives a good energy to a team when he plays. Now he’s coordinated, he’s quick and he’s fast with a good jump. I like that. But he needs to work more in the gym.”
Perhaps, but Kevin leaves this tournament for home to try make the 2012 French Olympic team.
“If he succeeds, he will stay with the national team. If not, he will come back and go to summer school.”
Tillie has been taking opponents to volleyball school of late. In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals and championship match, also played last week at the Galen Center, Tillie was a monster. The Anteaters were down 0-2 against USC before rallying back and to win 3-2.
“Hat’s off to him,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “Against us he did fantastic down the stretch of that match. He served unbelievably well in the fourth and fifth and attacked unbelievably well in the fourth and fifth.”
The next night against Stanford, they had to come back from 0-2 again to win in five. Tillie hit .372 against USC with 23 kills and 11 digs. Against Stanford, he had a career-high 24 kills and 13 digs and hit .422.
“He makes them go, for sure,” Ferguson said. “He’s a pretty talented kid. We all recruited him. He just does everything well. He’s a good defender, he’s a good passer, great server, great attacker, fits their system really well and he’s just got a ton of experience. He’s definitely all that he’s cracked up to be.”
Certainly that was the case again Thursday, especially in that third set.
“He just came alive for us. It was pretty unreal,” UC Irvine outside hitter Connor Hughes said, who added 10 kills and hit .364. “We needed to get the ball rolling and get the momentum back on our side and he pretty much brought that back to us. It really got us going there in the third.”
“I was fired up right from the beginning,” Tillie said. “I think we all got a bit nervous at the beginning. We made errors in the first set … After we started the second set we got fired up and played our game. We had some technical misconnects, but I think we’re going to be good on Saturday. We’re going to be ready.”
By advancing to Saturday night’s championship match, UC Irvine awaited the winner of the other semifinal between USC and Lewis. USC and Irvine split their two MPSF regular-season matches, with Irvine winning at home 3-1 on Jan. 27, but losing 3-1 at USC on April 7. In that match, Tillie had just three kills and hit .000. Ferguson was asked about that before this tournament began and if USC did anything special that night.
“We’ll see if that’s relevant later in the weekend,” Ferguson said. And then he laughed.
“And if so I still won’t tell you.”