Players, coaches and supporters of the UC Irvine men's volleyball team spent Sunday relaxing and anticipating.
Agonizing and regretting were the likely alternatives, had the Anteaters not rallied to win a pair of five-game matches on Thursday and Saturday to claim the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament title at USC's Galen Center.
Asked after Saturday's title-match triumph over Stanford about the do-or-die element of the MPSF Tournament, from which the winner gets a guaranteed berth into the four-team NCAA Championship ( Thursday and Saturday at the Galen Center), UCI senior All-American Carson Clark recalled a less-satisfying result.
"I know in 2009, it sucked, because it was out of our hands," Clark said of having to get the lone at-large berth into the Final Four after losing in the MPSF Tournament. "Our biggest thing was, we didn't want to sit there on Sunday and wait to hear our names. I'm happy that we're there."
UCI's season ended in 2011 when it lost to USC in the MPSF semifinals at the Galen Center. USC received the ensuing at-large berth into the NCAA Championships after it lost to UC Santa Barbara in the MPSF final.
To get to its fourth NCAA Championship, the No. 2-ranked and No. 4-seeded Anteaters (24-5) had to rally from two-game deficits, first against top-ranked and top-seeded USC on Thursday, then against Stanford on Saturday.
Senior outside hitter Kevin Carroll came off the bench to pound 12 kills and provide a major spark against USC, while senior middle blocker Austin D'Amore (four kills, a .571 hitting percentage, two solo blocks and two block assists) was the super sub de jour against the Cardinal.
And while depth has been a major factor for Coach John Speraw's 'Eaters — junior setter Chris Austin and sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes both won starting jobs during the regular season, with Hughes replacing first-team All-MPSF performer Jeremy Dejno in the last four matches — it was junior All-American Kevin Tillie that was the leading force for UCI in its two valiant comebacks,
Tillie, a native off France who played his first two collegiate seasons in Canada, had 23 kills and hit .372, while adding 11 digs, four block assists and two aces against USC, despite aggravating a sprained right ankle that sidelined him early in the season in Game 2.
Against Stanford, Tillie, still feeling the effects of his bad ankle, led the 'Eaters with 24 kills and hit .422. His 13 digs were tops on the team and he chipped in one solo block and four block assists.
In both matches, Tillie received 55 combined serves without a single passing error. He finished out a 28-26 Game 4 victory against USC with an ace and his kill halted Game 5 against the Trojans.
In addition, his energy and acrobatic back-row defense often had a catalytic impact. There were times when setting Tillie was the obvious choice, as others struggled, including senior All-American Carson Clark.
Still, Clark was named Most Outstanding Player in the Tournament, while Tillie and UCI senior middle blocker Dan McDonnell were afforded all-tournament recognition.
It was a colossal slight that Speraw somewhat acknowledged, but thoroughly downplayed afterward.
"[Tillie] has been great and he really was pretty tough coming in and playing on that bum ankle," Speraw said. "That's his bad ankle. That's why it hurt him so bad. I saw it on video [against USC] and he definitely rolled it. So, for him to come back and to play that [USC] match and spend all that time icing over the last 24 hours to try to get the swelling down to come back out and play again and to hit over .400, that's amazing."
Speraw was asked if he was surprised Clark received the tournament's top honor over Tillie.
"No, [Clark] is a senior," Speraw said. "It could have been [Tillie] for sure, but I don't think that that matters to anybody. It doesn't matter to Carson, it doesn't matter to Kevin and it certainly doesn't matter to me. I think it's all about who we play in the semis and getting ready for our next match."
UCI, which received the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Championship, meets No. 4-seeded Penn State (23-5) in Thursday's first semifinal at 6 p.m.
It's the third postseason meeting between UCI and Penn State. The Nittany Lions, champions of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn., defeated the 'Eaters in the 2006 semifinals at Penn State. UCI topped Penn State in four games in the 2007 semifinals at Ohio State.
UCI won NCAA titles in 2007 and 2009.
USC (23-5) earned the at-large berth to complete the four-team NCAA Championship field that also includes Lewis (26-6).
With USC edging Stanford and BYU for the at-large big, a regular-season MPSF champion has never been left out of the Final Four. UCI received an at-large bid in 2009, after losing to USC in the MPSF semifinals at UCI.