LOS ANGELES -- Connor Hughes comes up big when it matters. Thursday night in the national semifinals, the junior outside hitter had nine kills, including the match winner, as defending-champion UC Irvine escaped upstart Loyola, 26-24, 25-18, 29-27 in a match befitting the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship.
As a result, the Anteaters (24-7) could take a well deserved deep breath and await the winner of the later match between BYU and Penn State. UCI never played Penn State this season and lost twice to the top-ranked Cougars in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play.
“Our competitive objective in 2013 is and always has been to win the national championship,” first-year UCI coach David Kniffin said. “And if it’s BYU in our path, then it’s BYU. If it’s Penn State, then it’s Penn State.”
Either way, Loyola was in the way and proved to be a tough challenge. The Ramblers from Chicago (22-10) went punch for punch with UCI in the first and third sets, coming oh-so-close to winning both. But in the end, the experience and savvy of UCI, which has won three of the last six NCAA titles, proved too much.
“It’s a high-intensity game at this point,” Hughes said. “It’s win or go home. But I feel like we have a lot of experience from last year. We were in a very similar situation to this and just having that experience of being in the final four and knowing what we have to do to get the job done, really helped alleviate the pressure in a lot of ways, for me personally.”
Pressure? As a team, the Anteaters hit .500, including .630 in the first set. Hughes? He was nine for 13 with just one error for a .615 clip, reminding you of his performance in last year’s title match, when the product of Costa Mesa had 13 kills in 28 attempts against USC.
But that was a different time, when the Anteaters were coached by John Speraw and his former assistant, Kniffin, was coaching women at the University of Illinois, Last May, Speraw took the job at his alma mater, UCLA, and in June, Kniffin came back to Southern California to take over a team that was primed to go back-to-back for the first time since UCLA did it in 1995-96.
“When I took the job this was something I thought about. This has always been the goal and objective,” said Kniffin, who was accompanied by his daughter Summer, who’s 3, in the postgame handshake.
“It’s her favorite part,” Summer’s dad said.
His favorite part had to be the offense UCI ran that included French Olympian Kevin Tillie hitting 14 of 19 with just three errors (.579).
“We’re a tough team to scout, because we have some depth,” Kniffin understated. “Our depth isn’t just guys with the same skill sets and tendencies, but we can change how we play the game.”
Collin Mehring had nine kills in 11 attempts with no errors (.818) and the other middle, Scott Kevorken, had five kills in 10 attempts and, like Tillie, four blocks.
For that matter, all of Tillie’s and three of Kevorken’s blocks came in the second game when it appeared a rout was on.
But give Loyola credit.
“We didn’t know a lot about them,” said Kniffin, who compared Loyola’s attack to a hurry-up offense in football. “We knew there would be a little bit of feeling out as we went. When we stepped on the court we knew that team had the ability to serve and pass the ball at a very high level. When they can serve and pass the ball at a high level, they can run that fast offense. And when that fast offense gets going, they’re hard to stop. You saw a lot of action from their outsides and it took a while to adjust to that.
“ ... Once we dialed in our serving and slowed down the pace of the game, it became more of our style.”
The Ramblers, who knocked off Lewis, last year’s final four participant from their league, the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, had plenty of chances to win the third set, including being up 26-25 and 27-26 before Hughes had a kill, Kevorken a block, and Hughes the match-ender.
“I was proud of our guys and how they battled,” Loyola coach Shane Davis said. “It’s a tough loss for us being a couple of points away from being up 2-1.”
That wasn’t lost on junior right side Joe Smalzer, who had 11 kills but hit .185. Teammate Cody Caldwell led with 12 kills, but hit .200 as Irvine was just too fierce at the net.
“They’re a really good team,” Smalzer said. “It was a really fun battle. It seemed like it was going back and forth the whole match. There were a few points here and there that both teams let slide. They gave up a couple, we gave up a couple. Overall, it was kind of heartbreaking, but it was a good match.”
Loyola, which had just one senior who played in the match, is the host for next year’s tournament.
Originally published in July 2013