Leading up to the NCAA Tournament matches, VolleyMob is sitting for a brief conversation with the head coach of each of the seven teams for a quick update on their season, their personnel and their outlook heading into the final matches of 2018.
When we caught up with UC Irvine coach David Kniffin, his team was still unsure of its opponent for Tuesday’s Round of 6 match, but there was still much to talk about regarding the much buzzed about Anteaters, their season thus far and some big name players.
Back in February when we chatted with Kniffin, his team was 10-2 and had already faced fellow NCAA Tournament teams BYU and UCLA twice each and stood at 10-2. At the time, Kniffin told us his team could play with anyone and it turns out he was right.
As it stands, the Anteaters are 21-9 heading into their seventh trip to the postseason and in search of their fifth national title and first since 2013. UCI racked up 20 or more wins for the third time in the last four years, including an 8-4 mark on the road, and tied for second in the Big West at 6-4.
UC Irvine’s other resume points include a 12-0 mark in three-set matches, two wins over fellow NCAA competitor BYU and a road win at Hawaii.
Statistically, UCI is hitting .332 as a team, which ranks fifth nationally, and has put up 2.60 blocks per set, fourth nationally. The team boasts seven All-Big West selections, including three first team honorees, as well as the league’s Freshman of the Year, Joel Schneidmilller.
The goal at the beginning of the season was to put your team in position to be where you are right now, among the NCAA Tournament field. Talk about the ups and downs of the season that got you to this point.
The competitive objective is always to put yourself in a position to compete for the ultimate objective of a national championship. The objective is the excuse to go on the journey. The journey, or I think we call it more of an odyssey, really has been a series of adventures and every one with a new team and a young team, every adventure feels like a big one, a huge learning moment and a huge opportunity. I have just really enjoyed – you call them ups and downs – but I have really just enjoyed all of the learning moments throughout the year.
You can call it a learning moment I guess. As long as you learn from a loss, it wasn’t too bad, right?
As competitors, we are trying to win, that is the objective when we step out on the court. It is not the only objective. If the true nature of competition was just to win, first of all, all you are ever going to get is wins and losses and that doesn’t feel real satisfying. The second part of that is that if we are just trying to win, that would be like a surfer trying to say that the objective is to reach the shore. Anybody who surfs knows that is not what we are trying to do. You are out there to test yourself against the waves and kind of be in that moment. That is where the beauty of competition I think really shows itself. That is more holistically how I would view all of the matches we play, whether we win or lose, are we enjoying it, are we becoming who we want to become through those competitive moments.
You still have to look at some of your matches and say, man that was a great win – we beat BYU twice, we beat Hawaii at Hawaii, which not a lot of people can do and which was probably a big part of getting your team in the tournament. Or you were right there with Long Beach State. When you look back at some of those moments, what are your thoughts on those highs?
It is sure special to be able to compete with all of these great teams. The high comes from just the gratitude that I feel that we have the opportunity to do those things. Our administration has been so supportive in understanding that we are not a BCS resource school, and really the only thing within our power to kind of differentiate ourselves from other teams is to go play as tough of a schedule as we can. It is great when we get some of those wins, but I think the gratitude comes from the gift that we have been given to be able to be in those moments. It is interesting. The more I do this, and specifically at UC Irvine and with these boys, the less I am focused on the wins and losses for me and the more I want them to experience the wins so that they can see that is not the complete picture.
At the same time, you obviously want to get to the NCAA Tournament and you understand that you have to build a resume to get there, especially being on the outside looking in some would say last year.
Somebody asked me at the press conference after the Big West final, would you be surprised if you got in and my response sincerely was: there have been years when I have been more surprised that we didn’t get in.
I think we just have to keep doing things the way that we do them. We play the toughest schedule because we know that as competitors the only guarantee of admission is to punch your own ticket. Playing the toughest competition possible puts us in the best position to be prepared to play against the best teams. That is why we do it as much as anything. If we are only going to play the best teams in our Big West Tournament or whatever conference tournament we happen to be in, to wait until that moment to prepare is too late for a young team. If we were a more seasoned team, I think it might be a different strategy, but we needed to play tough so we could practice playing tough. And ultimately, the secondary effect of that is that it left the back door open for us and probably did help. We never schedule to try to get the at-large, we schedule tough to try to be the best team.
Let’s talk personnel. You had some question marks coming into the season. Were there any surprises or anyone you want to single out for coming through for you in ways that you had hoped they would?
Gosh, there were so many questions, because really we were only returning one for sure starter, and maybe two. As it turned out, (junior outside hitter Aaron) Koubi has emerged to be a legitimate starter for us, and that was special because the last two years he has been with us, he has been in condition to play until halfway or two thirds of the way through the season. So that was big for him to be healthy the entire year and continue to get stronger and improve. That was a nice anchor point for us. I think we saw that coming pretty quickly as the season started, but he still didn’t play in a couple of those first matches. We were kind of slowly rotating him into the lineup, but by the end of January, we were pretty confident he would be an anchor point for us.
Another anchor point for us was (sophomore middle) Scott (Stadick). He was obviously a known entity coming back. We figured that he would be a big part of our identity this year and he has continued to be that.
And then (junior opposite) Karl (Apfelbach) was another big question mark for us, just in terms of he had been on the court off and on over the years. But look at the jump he made. He probably hit .050 for us in last year’s campaign when he was kind of on and off the court and this year he is hitting just over .300. That is a pretty monumental shift for a guy to make in a season.
Then the setter position was going to be a huge identity shift because we were going away from Michael (Saeta).
We just worked and tried to leverage those strengths we had and understood that it wasn’t going to be played the same way as we played it in 2017, but I think the buy-in from the guys was the most pleasant surprise. The most special thing about this campaign has just been the unified buy-in from the guys that this is who we are and this is how we are going to do it. If someone is going to beat us in these areas, so be it, but our best chance it to be the best us.
A balanced offense is something you were shooting for when we spoke in February. As it stands, your team has hit .332 for the season so far and you have four guys averaging more than two kills per set and each is hitting over .300: Apfelbach (3.80 kps, .309), Koubi (2.78 kps, .336), Schneidmiller (2.61, .333), Stadick (2.08 kps, .418). You have to feel good about that and look at that as a big part of your identity moving forward.
The way our offense is set up, we talk a lot about options and we hope all of our options are legitimate. The way (junior setter) Dante (Chakravorti) has approached the season thus far is ‘if I can put up a hittable ball then it shouldn’t matter as much who I set.’ So that has created a lot of freedom to be balanced. That is a nice realization for a setter, to be able to say if I put up good hittable balls and put my hitters in good positions by doing that, we will be able to have a balanced offense. So, yeah, that is special.
When you look statistically at your team’s efforts this year, is there one area – offense, defense, blocking, serving – that has really shined and carried you through some of those close matches and the tough schedule?
I don’t think that it was any one area. I think that we have been pretty consistent in all of those areas. I think just our steadiness has been our greatest asset as a team. We don’t play hot/cold. We don’t require a lot of momentum. We for sure had some stretches where there was some frustration and the ball feels like a cube for our setter or one of our pin hitters goes into a little bit of a mental tank, those things happen with 18 to 22 year olds, it is all part of the game. But the resiliency of this team to just keep chugging along has been maybe our greatest asset.
Late in the season someone asked me if I realized that even in our losses that we hadn’t been swept 3-0, and I kind of looked around and said that makes sense. We are in every match. And we kind of knew that going into the season that we might not put a ton of service pressure on a team, but we were going to make them play the game. We are going to keep our errors down, whether that is attacking, blocking or serving and we are pretty good at putting the ball in the air, so a volleyball game will happen.
That has been pretty fun for me to be a part of that, because even when we are losing, I just feel like we are in it. We never really feel like we have gone away and that is a huge credit to the 2017 team, because that is kind of where that mantra started for us. Guys were running around the court telling people, we don’t go away. And I think that is what has been really fun about the process with this year’s team. As different as we are this year, I can see all of the foundational pieces that were put in place by the 2017 team, which operated on foundational pieces which were put in place by the 2016 team and 2015 team. That has been really fun for me to watch.
Short answer I guess is that steadiness has been the key for us. And it hurts us too, though, because we are not necessarily going to get hot from the service line and just rattle off four aces like some of these teams. But, at the same time, the pendulum doesn’t swing the other way.
When you look at things sit right now, you are in the tournament, but you didn’t win the Big West title, you stumbled a little bit in the conference tournament. Is there a sense of unfinished business or hunger to use the NCAAs a place to prove something?
I don’t think this team has anything left to prove, I just think they have a lot left to enjoy. As competitors, we are targeting the championship. We talk about it all the time, that is the ultimate competitive objective but I have to keep circling back to what we are doing at Irvine. My mission is to cultivate champions and win championships and the order is important.
If we can approach this next week and a half honoring the gift of competition and preparing with integrity and responsibility and to just go and honor that moment, to play as champions… the reason I want to win it is to give the boys the experience of that full picture and what it feels like to be there in that moment and walk away from it going yeah, that was cool now let’s apply this process over time and understand what this feels like to continue cultivating this championship mindset. That is the objective for me.
That is where I am at. But speaking for the guys, there is probably a little bit to prove and that is because there are some guys that haven’t won it yet. They understand how special the second chance at life is. I think we are team resurrected. We went home and I think a lot of guys mourned after that loss and there was a lot of uncertainty going into Sunday morning and we were putting ourselves in a position to be at peace whatever the outcome was. We are obviously grateful for the opportunity and I think it was very appropriate how we handled all of that. I am pretty proud of the maturity of the boys.
And lastly, you have a whole week to prepare but you don’t know exactly who you are playing as yet. I am sure you have already scouted both teams and will be watching Thursday’s play-in match intently, but do you have any thoughts on both Ohio State and King as potential competitors looking ahead?
With Ohio State we have at least some familiarity with their guys from last year when we played them. I think there is nothing more valuable than an in-person look, but we weren’t able to schedule that in-person look this year. I am grateful that we had a look last year and we have sense of who they are. Obviously they are an iconic team and one that has been in the spotlight.
King provides a different challenge that Ohio State does. It is little bit less of a known for us. We are not real familiar with King.
We are scouting for every possible opponent that we could meet over the course of the next week and half, because it moves fast. The way the championship is set up right now, it is a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, so it is a lot about having preliminary ideas about what everyone is doing and then looking at ourselves. The majority of the work this week will be on us, not our opponent. We just want to kind of have a sense of who they are and what they are about and I think we will able to accomplish that in the week that we have. This is the longest turnaround that we have ever had from a selection show to a NCAA game, at least for Irvine.
Do you worry about the layoff from competition at all?
No. I think a gift that we had in our schedule this year was that we had a couple of weekends that we were off, so we have kind of experienced that rhythm and I think we can manage it well. We know how to manage it. This is not the first time during the competitive season that we will go without a Saturday or Sunday match.