It’s an extremely quiet preseason for a two-time defending NCAA champion, but that’s just the way UC Irvine prefers it this fall.
UC Irvine coach David Kniffin said Tuesday in an interview with Off the Block that he opted to scale back his team’s preseason schedule to give his players more rest following their postseason run last season.
Check out Off the Block’s interview with Kniffin as the coach discusses his team’s preseason, trying to replace the seniors on last year’s title team and why he opted to schedule a season-opening Midwest road trip for the Anteaters.
Off the Block: Coach, you are coming off of a national championship. What has this preseason been like for UC Irvine as you prepare to try for a three-peat?
David Kniffin: The fall for us has been a lot of decompressing from last season. There were a lot of emotion tied up in that championship campaign last year with having a head coach transfer schools within the conference. It’s a lot about decompressing from last year so we really haven’t really competed much this fall. I don’t really know what we have just yet. I see us play against each other at practice a little bit, but we’ve really been lying low, which is an opposite strategy that I thought I never would have taken with a team. It just felt like we were pretty gassed from last year when we got back to the gym this fall.
OTB: Talking about your team this year, you lost some senior leaders from last season in Kevin Tillie and Chris Austin. Have you seen some new players step up and take those leadership roles and starting positions?
DK: I think the leadership we really lost on the team last year was Ian Castellana and he’s still on campus after getting accepted to master’s school of accountants. … We lost a lot of volleyball quality when we lost Kevin Tillie, and then we lost this unrelenting desire to win with a guy like Chris Austin. We are missing a pretty big trifecta in our gym right now. But, I think the sums of our parts is actually equal to last year’s team. We just can’t put all 21 guys out on the court at the same time.
OTB: With Austin now gone is Daniel Stork going to be starting setter to open the season or is it still a position battle?
DK: Stork had hip surgery right after the season last year so he spent all fall recovering. So we just started to see him put his hands on the ball again. So as far as who our starting setter is going to be right now, I have no idea.
OTB: This season you doing something different from previous years for UC Irvine and opening the season with a Midwest road trip against Loyola, Lewis and Ball State. What made you decide to open your season with this road trip?
DK: I almost wonder if it’s just a little bit of me wanting to go back to the Midwest. I spent a year in Illinois [with the Illinois women’s volleyball team] and it was so productive for me as a person and for the profession. I think the biggest thing is if we are going to maintain the same competitive objective, which is to win a national championship, we need to be willing to do some things differently than we did last year. So this is a chance for us to start the year in a very different manner from which we would start out. I think that will be important for us.
OTB: With this being your second season as the UC Irvine head coach, how different has this preseason been compared to last year’s preseason?
DK: It’s been really different. I don’t know if it’s as much as my second year doing it or just because the personality of the team has shifted so much with the graduation of those three seniors. It’s been incredibly different.
OTB: Going off that, you won the national championship last. How do you continue to motivate a team in the preseason to not have a letdown or a championship hangover?
DK: I think a lot of it is that process of decompressing this fall. We wanted to make sure we we’re taking adequate rest in the off-season. In the past, when we won national championships I think the knee-jerk reaction for the guys is to get right back in the gym that next week and start working out again and demonstrating how bad they want it. I almost wonder if that results in a sense of burn-out at some point in the next campaign. So this season was a lot about rest and through that rest you should see a pretty rejuvenated team once we hit the court in January.
OTB: How taxing do you feel it is for a MPSF team when not all do you have the intense postseason matches, but a regular season with 10 to 15 matches against top 10 nationally ranked teams?
DK: It’s like going to battle every night. Every time we see an opponent it will be a tough match. I think the reality is in our conference you want to finish in the top eight so that you can make the conference tournament. If you make the conference tournament and you peak at the right time you can win those three conference tournament matches at the end of the year and then you go to the Final Four. I don’t know how much it matters, except that we want to finish in the top eight. That’s the objective, to make the playoffs. … What it really comes down to is the team that is going to peak at the end and how they are going to do that.