IRVINE — First-year coach David Kniffin insists that his top-ranked UC Irvine men's volleyball team is still searching for its defining elements. But after the Anteaters dispatched No. 4-ranked Pepperdine, 25-22, 25-20, 25-21, in their Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and home opener at the Bren Events Center on Tuesday, it appears that the defending national champions certainly haven't lost much.
UCI (4-0), which captured the crown with three victories at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational over the weekend, displayed no visible weaknesses in handling the Waves (0-1).
Sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera paced the winners with 16 kills, posting a .577 hitting percentage in the process.
Senior outside hitter Kevin Tillie, a returning All-American making his first start of the season, added eight kills, while middle blockers Scott Kevorken (seven kills, a .750 hitting percentage) and Collin Mehring (six kills and hitting .500) proved too much for Pepperdine to handle.
Senior setter Chris Austin (40 assists and three block assists) and sophomore libero Michael Brinkley (a match-high 12 digs), two of UCI's handful of returning starters, were additional stalwarts for the winners.
Mehring, a 6-foot-7 junior who did not dress for road matches last season, earned tournament MVP honors at UCSB.
Dejno, a first-team All-MPSF performer last season who was named American Volleyball Coaches Assn. National Player of the Week, chipped in seven kills on Tuesday.
But it was La Cavera, stepping into the lineup for four-time All-American opposite Carson Clark, who warranted most of the spotlight on Tuesday. He had half of his kills in the final set, including match point.
"I think we're still a team looking for its identity," Kniffin said. "It's kind of that post-national-championship syndrome where we're looking to replace some of the guys we lost. The last few matches for us have really been about each guy figuring out who they are and how they are going to contribute to the team.
"I think Zack is a player coming into his own," Kniffin said. "He's figuring out that he's not Carson, nor do we want him to be Carson. We want him to be Zack. Every match we play with [La Cavera] on the court, he's getting closer to figuring out the kind of player he is."
La Cavera, who added one solo block and three block assists to help UCI earn a 13-8.5 edge in total blocks, said it may have merely been his turn to shine after what he said was a mediocre tournament showing individually.
"This definitely helps my confidence," La Cavera said. "I had a pretty good match tonight. I didn't play that great over the tournament, so it definitely feels really good that I played so well tonight."
La Cavera said blocking and serving (UCI managed just one ace and had 13 service errors) are areas in which the Anteaters aim to improve as the season progresses. But he admits that he and his teammates have already considered the possibility of an unbeaten season.
"It's definitely not our main focus, but it's definitely a very big goal for us to try to win every single match we have," La Cavera said.
Kniffin, a former assistant and setter at UCI who is trying to lead the program to its fourth NCAA championship in seven seasons, has a more practical approach.
"My goal," Kniffin said, "is to go undefeated into the next match. If we win that one, then my goal will be to go undefeated into the next match and so on. But this is a big-time conference. I don't even know the last time there was an undefeated team, but it wasn't [from the] MPSF. Our goal is to win the next match and if we end up undefeated, cool."
A significant blocking focus on Pepperdine's 6-7 senior opposite Maurice Torres, who shared his team lead with 10 kills, but hit .000 with 10 errors in 25 attempts, helped UCI secure win No. 4.
"That was definitely a big part of our game plan," Kniffin said. "Where we could, I thought we contained [Torres] pretty well."
UCI plays host to USC on Friday at 7 p.m. in a rematch of last season's NCAA final.
The Anteaters' 2012 national championship banner will be unveiled on Wednesday during halftime of the men's basketball game against Hawaii.