PALO ALTO, Calif. -- While some California universities stack their men’s volleyball teams with as many locals as possible, UC Irvine coach David Kniffin has altered that approach.
The Anteaters roster has its fair share of California kids, but also has a player from Israel, Chile, China, Australia and France.Recruiting student-athletes from other countries is not new, but Kniffin has put a spin on the practice with a different philosophy.
“We are well represented,” Kniffin said. “I don’t think we are reinventing the wheel but we are taking a different angle. We aren’t looking for the most talented international kid we are looking for the best fit for our program hoping that there is an international kid that fits that bill. If he becomes a top player, that’s a bonus.”
It’s all part of a mantra UCI has adopted for the university.
“One of the reasons we are inspired to do so at UC Irvine is because it’s a mission of our university to become a more global campus,” Kniffin said. “What that means is we want to recruit and educate our international best. If my job as a head coach is to parallel the university then that means I need to look overseas for talent as well. We kind of got that in our international students.”
Tamir Hershko couldn’t wait to enroll at UCI. He met Kniffin while playing for the Israeli junior team at an event in Slovenia.
“After the tournament we kept in touch,” Hershko said. “Over time he contacted me and he told me he was at UC Irvine and he offered me a spot on a team. I always wanted to play in an American college and once he offered it I was really happy and I knew I was going to take it.”
Kniffin said it is more important to have a quality person than a star volleyball player and he is very deliberate in his recruitment of international athletes.
“You want to get to know the person and see if they are willing to adapt to the challenges, willing to live away from his home country to take on the academic load at UC Irvine,” Kniffin said. “Every time we end up with an international athlete it has its own unique storyline. There isn’t a formula for recruiting someone outside the U.S."
That was certainly the case with Roberto Frazzoni of Chile. The senior setter wasn’t even on Kniffin’s radar when he came to the South American country to recruit another player.
“[Kniffin] came to Chile to recruit another player and my dad drove him around and helped him out,” Frazzoni said. “They talked about me and he didn’t even know I played volleyball. It turned out the kid he was recruiting didn’t want to come [to UC Irvine] and two months later coach sent me an email asking if I wanted to come to play for him. I immediately said 'yes.' I did everything I needed to do to get there and the process went fast.”
That didn’t mean Frazzoni wasn’t nervous coming to another country.
“It was scary at the beginning, I only knew [Kniffen] and nobody else,” Frazzoni said. “I saw a couple of videos of the team and they looked super good. Leaving everything behind I knew for the last 20 years was scary, though.”
The team welcomed him immediately and even tried to help him with his classwork, which was hampered by adjusting to speaking only English.
“The language was tough, especially in school,” Frazzoni said. “Schools in Chile you don’t really have big lecture halls. If you have a question you just ask the professor after class. Here you have 300 kids and in the beginning I didn’t understand what they said all the time. I was just trying to take as many notes as I could and figure it out on my own. It took me two months to get used to it. “
Both Frazzoni and Hershko learned some English in schools back home, but the transition was still difficult.
“The language was the toughest thing,” Hershko said. “I speak Hebrew at home so that was tough in the beginning.”
But both are now unofficial ambassadors and have returned to their homelands telling other potential college students the advantages of an American education.
“I was just talking to my friend's little brother who just turned 18 and he is trying to come here,” Frazzoni said. “I told him to do it, no matter what it takes. You play at a high level and get an education.”
Hersko has never regretted his decision, despite the obstacles he had to overcome.
“I like playing volleyball at a high level,” Hershko said. “The weather, the beach, the culture, the food is great. It’s an adventure and I love it so much. If you want it bad enough you will find a way to achieve it.”