UC Irvine's Collin Mehring guides a shot past the block of Pepperdine… (ucirvinesports.com )
Collin Mehring had been a growing boy and a somewhat unreliable contributor to the UC Irvine men's volleyball team for two years while being an intense student in the school's acclaimed computer science engineering program.
And that's hardly surprising. Mehring is a walk-on. He almost didn't play volleyball in college. "You know," he said, "I wanted to be a student and didn't know if I could do both."
At the last minute, with a pep talk from his high school coach Mike Rubin — who was also Mehring's physics teacher at St. Francis High in Mountain View — Mehring decided to try to do both.
Mehring, who redshirted in 2010 and played in only one match with the 2012 national championship team that beat USC in the NCAA finals at the Galen Center, is one reason the Anteaters are back in the NCAA championships again, even though five key seniors from last season are gone.
The 6-foot-7 middle blocker finished the regular season ranked sixth in the nation in blocks per set. In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the toughest of the three collegiate volleyball organizations in the country, Mehring is first in hitting percentage and fourth in blocks.
Irvine is seeded second in the NCAA championships, which begin Thursday at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Brigham Young is seeded first, Loyola of Chicago, in its first-ever appearance, is seeded third and Penn State fourth. Irvine plays Loyola of Chicago Thursday at 6 p.m.
Irvine's return also came under a new coach. When coach John Speraw left last June to take the UCLA job, in came 32-year-old David Kniffin, who spent last season as an assistant with the University of Illinois women's team. Kniffin, had spent the previous five years at Irvine, working with Speraw and helping recruit many of the players. He's an Irvine alumnus who was a starting setter with the Anteaters' 2002 and 2003 teams.
As difficult as it was to say goodbye to Speraw last year, Mehring said, it was equally tough to see Kniffin leave two years ago. "He's special," Mehring said.
When Kniffin returned to Irvine, he took the team on a nine-day trip to Mar del Plata, on the Argentine coast, where's there's a sports school and pro teams. It was there, Kniffin said, that Mehring went from, "being a volleyball boy to a volleyball man."
In his very first match this year, a win over nationally ranked Cal Baptist, Mehring was 11 for 11 on kill attempts. That set the course.
There were struggles for the Anteaters. Kniffin changed the blocking system from last year, and there was a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season.
"But we are where I thought we'd be," Kniffin said. "In the NCAA championships, seeded second. Everybody on the team wants to establish UCI as a program. A program is where it doesn't matter who the coach is. A program stands on its own.
"No one has won back to back since 1993, and that was done by UCLA, so to go to UCLA and have that shot, it's great.
"Every year is a different journey, even if the staff is maintained. When I came, I told our guys I needed to coach within my personality. I have high standards but I might be a little less rigid and I have a system that has more artistic freedom to it. I didn't want new guys to mimic what guys who aren't even here now did last year."
Mehring isn't mimicking anything. He's just becoming a star.