Asian tour gives UC Irvine head start to 2019 season

Photo by Jonathan Bates

Brendan Yu | Special Contributor

Following an early exit from the NCAA Tournament last season, it’s tempting to say UC Irvine is entering the 2019 season looking to rectify that loss from the previous season.

Coach David Kniffin, now entering his seventh year at the helm, said as much in the team’s postgame news conference after the season-ending loss to Ohio State, noting that it felt like “unfinished business.”

That narrative, however, is slightly misleading, as it implies that the Anteaters aren’t already motivated enough in their end goal of a NCAA championship.

“I would say motivation is always there, whether we went there last year or this year, this program is meant to win championships,” senior setter Dante Chakravorti said. “We love going to school here, but that’s why you come to a place like Irvine.

“We have a lot of great school programs, it’s on the beach, but you come here to win a championship. That motivation, we make sure that it’s there right away, so that never needs to get questioned.”

This offseason the Anteaters kicked off their 2019 campaign overseas in a three-country Asian tour through South Korea, Japan and China. During the course of its tour, the UC Irvine endured a gauntlet of 10 games in 18 days against various professional teams in each country, such as the Hyundai Skywalkers and Shanghai Golden Age.

“Definitely a good chance for us on the court to work through some of our system stuff early on in the year,” Chakravorti said. “We get to play matches that early in the year, which we don’t normally get to do. We got a lot of guys returning so we’re able to kind of build off what we did last year. We took freshmen on the trip [as well], so we’re integrating them as much as we can both on the court and off the court too.”

The tour served as a catalyst for the team’s chemistry both on and off the court, as the players leaned on each other to navigate the challenges of being in a foreign country together.

“The reason we really love team travel is not just for the competitive elements, it’s that there’s so many moments to just spend time with the guys, and so many moments for the guys to spend time with each other,” Kniffin said. “It’s really that camraderi and that common experience is built through travel in such a unique way.”

At the conclusion of their tour, the Anteaters came away not only with an appreciation for the level of play, but perhaps more importantly, the level of dedication exhibited by their hosts.

“There’s this libero that’s 41 years old and he gets out there every day and he gets the same float serve and passing reps that he’s gotten since he’s probably 13 years old,” Chakravorti recounted. “So if he can do the same drill that we think is monotonous after a month for 30 years, we should be able to take a little bit of that and put something like that into our training regime. It was really cool just to see how good they are and the kind of dedication they put in.”

This year, the Anteaters, ranked No. 4 in the AVCA preseason national coaches poll, boasts a promising roster comprised of a healthy mix of battle-hardened veterans and promising underclassman.

The team returns All-Americans Scott Stadick, Karl Apfelbach, Aaron Koubi and Joel Schneidmiller, flanked by All-Big West honorees Austin Wilmot, David Parker and Chakravorti. The Anteaters will also be joined on the frontlines by Jonny Bowles, who was ranked as the nation’s top recruit.

As with tradition, UC Irvine takes on one of the country’s most challenging schedules, with an opening slate of five-away games in eight days.

Chakravorti said the team is well-prepared for the grind of the upcoming season following its trip to Asia.

“It’s kind of like a mini-season, you get all the highs and lows of season, but maybe instead of over weeks or between matches it’s happening by the hour,” he said. “I think it’s good practice for the season [as] things are going to come up and we’re going to deal with those [issues], and we’re already going to have dealt with things like that in the Asian tour or in fall training, so when we get to the season, it’s not that bad.”

And from what the Anteaters have shown thus far in the offseason, Kniffin too thinks the team is prepared to handle whatever may come their way in the upcoming months. If anything, the team may have handled itself just a little too well while overseas.

“Sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re pushed up against our thresholds, and that tour through Asia, three different countries, a red eye flight going from Japan to China, all the components of being in a foreign country, without our comforts and without some of our technologies, all of this combined really put us up against our threshold” Kniffin said. “It was really enjoyable and it was also very challenging.

“What I think I learned from this experience is that these guys are capable of so much, and they really impressed me with the way they traveled and navigated. They allowed me to think that as hard as we’ve scheduled in the past, I can schedule harder and it would be OK.”