UC Irvine's Chris Austin defends as Loyola Chicago's Nicholas… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
Sometimes it takes a losing coach to give the best assessment of the next event.
Penn State men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik lost to top-seeded Brigham Young on Thursday night in the NCAA semifinals at Pauley Pavilion, and he saw second-seeded UC Irvine beat Loyola Chicago.
Saturday at 6 p.m. the two teams each of which has been in the NCAA finals four times and won three titles (the Anteaters most recently a year ago) will meet for the third time this season.
The Cougars (26-4) beat the Anteaters in matches in January and in March, and Pavlik has his view of what might happen Saturday.
"You've got a very precise, physical team that's well coached in UC Irvine," Pavlik said. "You've got BYU that is this offensive juggernaut. They've got to stay in system against Irvine's serving. BYU is very well coached and when they knock Irvine off the net, Irvine's got to deal with that block. It's going to be a very good match. I wouldn't be surprised if it goes five sets."
It was a remarkable five-setter when the Cougars came from two sets down to beat the Anteaters on March 1 at the Bren Center to end an 11-match winning streak. The Cougars were down two sets and 19-14 in the third before winning 15-11 in the fifth.
The star for the top-seeded Cougars (26-4) is Ben Patch, a skinny, high-jumping freshman from Provo. Patch, a 6-foot-8 opposite hitter who Pavlik said will one day be on the U.S. national team, had 35 kills in that five-set victory, and he had 12 Thursday night in a three-set win over Penn State.
The Anteaters had their own frantic star Thursday.
Senior Kevin Tillie, who is from Cagnes-Sur-Mer in France, had 31 kills, which is so normal he did not make the post-match interview lineup for the winners. Tillie has earned the nickname "Air France" for his jumping skills.
He is "only" 6 feet 6, not unusually tall in volleyball, but his father, Laurent, is coach for the French national team and his mother, Caroline, played professionally in the Netherlands. "This game, it's in our blood," Tillie said.
Tillie said he wanted a U.S. experience and felt at home when he went to Newport Beach, close to Irvine.
No team has won back-to-back national titles since UCLA in 1995 and 1996. The Anteaters (24-7) don't see that as a problem.
"The versatility on the team this year is an improvement from last year," said sophomore Zack La Cavera from Huntington Beach. "Last year's team, we had solid starters and you rarely saw them leave the court. This year a lot of guys are coming in and battling. This year it's really been good with having that trust no matter who is on the court. We're ready for it, ready to win."
BYU has nine players from Southern California on the roster, and on Thursday had almost as many fans at Pauley as had come north from Irvine.
"It should be noisy," Patch said of Saturday's final, which will be televised on ESPNU. "And it should be intense."