Q&A with UC Irvine at men’s volleyball NCAA Tournament media day

UC Irvine coach David Kniffin and several of his players participated in the NCAA Tournament media day on Wednesday in Los Angeles.

UC Irvine is attempt to become the first men’s volleyball team in almost 20 years to win back-to-back NCAA championships and will play the No. 3 seed Loyola in the semifinals Thursday.

Check out what Kniffin and the Anteater players had to say about their chances of repeating, what they need to do to beat Loyola and how everyone on the team is well aware of Loyola outside attacker Cody Caldwell’s ability to take over a match.

David Kniffin, UC Irvine coach: This is a phenomenal facility here at UCLA. These locker rooms … we haven’t seen anything like that.

Media question: What’s your familiarity with Loyola head coach Shane Davis?

David Kniffin: The volleyball community is small, so we cross paths all the time. We know Shane specific to Loyola. He’s built that program and been at the helm. They received full funding five years ago. It’s similar to when we received full-funding, and four years later we were in Final Four. When you back it up with funding, the sky’s the limit. From the outside looking in, Loyola is a professional program with a professional coach leading it.

Media question: Coach, what do you know about Loyola’s team?

David Kniffin: What we know about that team is they have Cody Caldwell. Most of our guys played against him in the club ranks because he’s an Orange County kid. Cody has always been a clutch player, he always scores points from the line. Mix him with a 6-8 opposite [Joseph Smalzer], and they are able to go on runs. When you look at them statistically, you can tell where they’re scoring the majority of their points. Those two guys are a steady factor for them.

Media question: What does your team need to do to advance to the championship?

David Kniffin: We need to do what we’ve been doing all year. This team has been on an identity search. It’s always a challenge in post-championship years to find your own voice as a team. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot – those pitfalls and how we respond. It’s easy to look at a guy like Zack La Cavera and say he could be the next Carson Clark. We don’t want him to be that. We want him to be Zack La Cavera. We have to turn that thinking on its head right away. We did that for the start of the season. It’s an ongoing process, but I think we’re almost there. If we can stay true to that, I think we’re in a good spot.”

Media question: What he has learned in your first-year as a head coach?


David Kniffin: Despite my familiarity with the program and players, and my familiarity with the process and the league, what was really surprising was how different my perspective was when driving the bus, so to speak. I’m ultimately responsible for everything now. It can be overwhelming at times, but I’m thankful for the support staff we have in place at UC Irvine. The time they spend to make my job easier blows me away.

Media question: What is it like stepping in for a coach who had just won a NCAA championship?

David Kniffin: Had I not been here as an assistant coach, I don’t know if it would have been possible to step in. My familiarity with the terrain made it interesting. Some people told me it was the worst possible career move I could take because there’s nowhere to go but down. But for me as a competitor, I thought, ‘This is my kind of job.’ I embrace that, and we’ve got guys on the team who embrace that too.”

Media question: Chris, what’s your thoughts on playing Loyola?

Chris Austin, UC Irvine setter: Loyola looks like they’re going to be a tough team. We haven’t looked at much film yet, but at this point the focus is on ourselves. Right now it’s about us and how we play the game.

Media question: What’s your thoughts on Loyola’s Cody Caldwell?

Chris Austin: Cody is a good player and is always clutch. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to play well against him.”

Media question: Is there pressure being defending champions?

Chris Austin: There’s no pressure. Every single match is its own individual. We don’t feel as if we’re defending anything. We’re coming here as an at-large. We’re not coming in as a team that’s defending. We’re just going to come in and focus on our game. We think that at the end of the day our victory or loss is going to be determined by us and not anyone else.”

Media question: What’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team?

Chris Austin: Probably the biggest difference is that this year’s team is very defensive-minded. We’re a lot more compatible and adaptable to different situations. This year’s team grinds more than last year’s. And this year’s team has had to deal with a lot more ebbs and flow, with different personality and lineup changes. Any of the 15 guys traveling I feel comfortable setting to them.

Media question: Zack what’s your thoughts about playing Loyola?

Zack La Cavera, UC Irvine outside attacker: They’re a little different from the typical teams we play. We watched a little bit of video, so we’ll be good, but we’re just focusing on ourselves and what we’re doing.

Media question: What’s your familiarity with Cody Caldwell?

Zack La Cavera: We played on the same club team (Balboa Bay); he was an outside, and I was opposite. Ryan Baine was also on that team. I played with him in club for two years and played against him a couple of times in high school, so I know him pretty well.

Media question: Is there pressure as defending champion?

Zack La Cavera: We acknowledge how we did it last year, but this is a new head coach, with new players, and it’s not going to take the exact same thing to win. We’re going to be finding out how to do it. We don’t have the pressure of having to do it exact same way.

Media question: What’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team?

Zack La Cavera: The versatility on the team this year is an improvement from last year. Last year’s team we had solid starters, and you’d rarely ever see them leave the court. I saw a little bit of the court last year. A lot of guys this year are coming in and battling. This year it’s been really good with having that trust that no matter who is on court, we’re ready for it and ready to win with whoever is on the court.

Media question: Why did you decided to leave France and play for UC Irvine?

Kevin Tillie, UC Irvine outside attacker: I just wanted to follow what my brother [Kim Tillie] did. He played basketball with Utah, and I wanted to do the same thing – study and play at the same time. So I went two years in Canada, and after two years, I just wanted to go to the United States. I sent some emails to BYU and USC, but when I visited UCI, I committed right away.”

Media question: What’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team?

Kevin Tillie, UC Irvine: There are new players coming onto the court. It’s a different team. We have a lot of substitutes and role changes. It’s good; it’s different.