‘Air France,’ UCI in search of 4th championship

If the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team wanted to learn how to say National Championship in French, Kevin Tillie could teach team.

Tillie, the high-flying 6-foot-6 French import made an immediate impact in his first year with the team helping the Anteaters win the program’s third national championship. Tillie was named a first team All-American and earned first team All-MPSF honors in racking up 342 kills in 90 sets, averaging 3.80 kills per set. His strong play helped the team finish the season 26-5 with a hard fought win over USC in the NCAA Division I Final 3-0 (25-22, 34-32, 26-24).

“I knew Kevin could have an impact on our ability to compete for a championship,” former UC Irvine head coach John Speraw said. “He possesses the skills and the fluid athleticism of a top-flight player, and with his background, he reads the game really, really well.”

The National Championship was the program’s third since 2007, all three being won under the tutelage of Speraw, who left the program this June to return to his alma mater UCLA and replace retiring legendary Bruins head coach Al Scates. Former assistant coach and UCI alum David Kniffin was named Speraw’s replacement at Irvine.

“It has been great so far, most of us knew Kniffin before and we like his style of coaching and his philosophy,” Tillie said of his new coach. “We have trust in him so we work pretty hard.”

The Anteaters were ranked the No. 1 team in the nation in the 2012-13 MPSF preseason poll and in UCI’s first meeting against Speraw and the Bruins, the Anteaters handled UCLA in straight sets (25-15, 25-14, 25-20) at a preseason tournament in October. On Saturday night at the Asics Tournament in Santa Barbara, the Bruins took the Anteaters to five (25-16, 25-17, 24-26, 21-25, 15-13), but UCI again prevailed to improve their record to 3-0 this season.

“It will be hard to repeat, but we don’t like to look at the rankings even though they are there,” said Tillie. “We try to focus and getting better and we have to take every team seriously. Being a preseason No. 1 isn’t going to make you win, we have to earn it. The rankings will just put a bigger target on our team and other teams will have more motivation to beat us.”

Tillie, in his senior year, expects the Anteaters to win a national championship, capping his two-year career at Irvine.

“My experience has been beyond what I expected,” he said. “The style of life at UCI is really fun and exciting. I live on the beach enjoying beautiful sunsets, body surfing (when the water is warm enough), hanging out on the sand, and playing volleyball and studying at the same time. It is pretty amazing.

“All my friends in France are jealous.”

Born in Cagnes Sur Mer, France in the French Riviera, “Air France,” as he has been dubbed, comes from a volleyball background. His parents played on their respective country’s national teams in the Olympics – his father Laurent, who is now a coach for the French National team, for France and his mother, Caroline, for Holland. His 6-foot-11 older brother Kim played from college basketball at Utah for four seasons (2006-10) and now plays professionally overseas. His youngest brother Killian, 14, is considered to be the best athlete of the family and is currently playing basketball and volleyball and already stands 6-foot-5.

Tillie was a member of the french Junior National team in high school and had hoped to play collegiately in the US, being recruited by Pepperdine and BYU amongst others. But he was ruled ineligible for NCAA play due to an unspecified issue in transferring his grades. So to continue his volleyball career, he attended Thompson Rivers College in Canada. In 2010, the Wolfpack went 10-8 and Tillie was named CIS Rookie of the year, one of five such award winners in the program’s history. The following year, Tillie helped the WolfPack to a 9-9 regular-season record and was named a CIS second-team all-star, was named to the Canada West Athletic Association All-Star team, was second in Canada West with 4.41 kills per set and 4.88 points per set, 10th in digs with 2.04 and ranked third in the nation in points per game.

“Kevin Tillie had a great season for the WolfPack and was truly a star in the Canada West league,” Wolfpack head coach Pat Hennelly told the team’s official website. “He has one of the most complete skill packages in the game, an excellent passer and defender, great attacker and server. Kevin plays with intensity and is a solid teammate, captain and nice person. Kevin leads by example every day in practice and in the weight room and is one of the hardest workers on our team. It has been a pleasure to coach Kevin and he has been the main reason for our nine wins this season and has led our team into the post season.”

Proof of his impact, the Wolfpack struggled to a 3-17 record in the 2011-12 season, Tillie’s first at Irvine.

“I decided to try the US experience again, hoping my grades would transfer. I sent emails to universities I had heard of and received many answers,” Tillie said. “After visiting UCI, I decided to commit right away, it was like living in a dream being in Newport Beach right on the beach and the sun, having a great coach with a good level of volleyball and having a good education at UCI.”

Tillie is the only foreigner and one of just three non-Californians on the Irvine roster, joining Chris Austin (Henderson, NV) and Jeremy Dejno (New Berlin, WI).

“My teammates ask me if I need a cigarette break during practice, but also before and after practice,” Tillie, who does not smoke, said, “They also like to pick on my clothing like my scarves, which I wear a lot and commenting on my food like eating baguettes and cheese. I do eat a lot of bread.”

His teammate Will Montgomery convinced Tillie to play in the Manhattan Beach 6-Man Tournament two years ago where his Team Simmzys/Becker beat Team Smack/Magnum in the final.

“He is going to be something special,” said beach volleyball legend Tim Hovland after Tillie’s performance in the final. “He can literally jump right out of the gym. He reminds me a lot of Sean Rosenthal.”

High praise for Tillie as the sky certainly appears to be the limit for “Air France.”