In volleyball, UCI’s Chris Austin is a natural

The first day Chris Austin walked into Las Vegas Coronado high school’s volleyball practice, he wanted to leave.

He played basketball his whole life and volleyball was not his bag. His basketball teammate Eric Boman promised to buy him lunch for a week if he kept coming.

Luckily for the UC Irvine Anteaters, Austin accepted the offer and began enjoying the game after the second week of tryouts when he hit a ball on the 10-foot line – a feat similar to a slam dunk in basketball. From then on he was hooked.

Austin helped lead the Anteaters to their third Division I National Championship title over USC (25-22, 34-32, 26-24) in front of a Galen Center crowd of 9,612, the third-largest for a men’s championship. In the match, junior college transfer setter Austin tallied 48 assists, finishing with a total of 828 in his first year at UC Irvine.

Austin didn’t even begin off the year as the starting setter. Daniel Stork, son of volleyball legend and gold medalist Jeff Stork, started at setter until he suffered a concussion midseason. Austin got the nod on Feb. 22 against Cal State Northridge, where he guided the Anteaters to a .458 hitting percentage and posted a career-high at the time with 41 assists. For the rest of the season, Austin got the job done.

After Austin’s sophomore year in high school, he decided to focus solely on volleyball.

“My basketball coaches were pretty upset when I stopped playing, so it is a good thing volleyball worked out for me.” Austin said.

After Austin caught the volleyball bug, he next set a goal to play at the collegiate level.

“My sophomore year in high school, I began to take volleyball more seriously and realized it was a sport where you didn’t necessarily need years and years of experience to compete at the next level,” he said. “So as soon as I realized how much time I was investing into it, I made that my next goal.”

His tale continued as he had the opportunity to play at Long Beach Community College.

“I originally thought I would play at the University of Hawaii, but a coaching change had me looking for options to keep my career going but still be able to play that spring and not having to sit out,” Austin said. “Luckily Randy Totorp was open to having me in his gym at LBCC immediately.”

The 6-foot-3 Austin was as an outside hitter in high school until one of his coaches convinced him that if he wanted to play Division I volleyball, setting was the best route because of his height. Austin took the advice and began setting.

“I recruited Chris to LBCC as a setter,” Long Beach Community College coach Totorp  said. “That being said, it was difficult to not use Chris as a hitter because he was a very talented hitter as well. So much, that his freshmen season we ran a 6-2 [offense] so that we could benefit from the additional offense he provided. Both Chris and I knew that setting at the next level was his best bet, and in his sophomore year that was his full-time roll.”

“Chris is one of the most ambitious and motivated athletes I have coached,” Totorp said.  “He is not afraid to set extremely high goals. His decision to pursue and eventually transfer and play at UCI for coach (John) Speraw was calculated. He wanted to be in the gym with perhaps the best men’s volleyball coach in the nation and a program that had earned being in the NCAA Championship conversation each year. Starting for UCI and winning an NCAA men’s volleyball championship was definitely one of his many goals.”

Austin averaged 10.5 assists per set for the Vikings and helped Long Beach City capture the 2011 Western State Conference championship before losing to Grossmont in the 2011 California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) Men’s Volleyball State Championship.

Since California does not offer scholarships at community colleges, Austin was forced to work to support himself.

“I had to work three jobs when I was at LBCC to be able to afford California and I hold the same workload now to be able to afford being at UCI too,” he said.

During his sophomore year Austin decided that he wanted to further his playing career. He emailed a few local coaches in California, including Speraw and David Kniffin.

UC Irvine Head Coach David Kniffin had a similar history as Austin’s, going to Loyola Marymount for one year in 2000 until the volleyball program was dropped, then to Pierce Community College, then UC Irvine. Kniffin went to watch Austin play when he was setting at LBCC.

“Chris has a passion for the game and a drive to be great,” Kniffin said. ”He has a blue- collar work ethic and has always been the underdog. But mostly, it is all Chris’ ability to just figure it out. Whether it is on or off the court, he just seems to find a way.

“Honestly, I empathized with his situation. I wanted him to succeed where I failed. I think that at the time we recruited Chris I also felt we needed someone with a chip on their shoulder to push the envelope and shake things up.”

Austin came into the season behind Stork but stepped up when he was needed. When Stork returned in April, roles were reversed and he came in a few times to replace Austin.

“I looked at it as a good opportunity,” Austin said. “Because when Daniel comes into a match, I know he’s been there before and I don’t have to worry that I let the team down. And it’s the same with him. He knows that if he’s not having his best match, that I’ll come in and have his back. That’s a wonderful thing. We don’t really have a selfish mentality around here, because we realize that everybody around us is just as good, or can be just as good on a given night.”

This season the Anteaters are off to a great start, boasting a 4-0 record under new head coach David Kniffin. Austin has started the first four matches for the Anteaters with wins over Cal Baptist, Long Beach State, UCLA and Pepperdine.

“Kniff is what I like to call the bomb.com,” Austin said who posted 40 assists against Pepperdine Tuesday night.  “He is great with communication and he thinks a lot like I do.  It is pretty easy for him and me to vibe and that translates over to the team.”

Coach Kniffin sees Austin progressing nicely but with some new players on the team feels that he will need to adjust.

“He’s still young in the game,” Kniffin said. “The delta between his analysis of the game and execution of the skills is still wide. He is also learning to listen more and assert less. This year’s team is different and he will need to adapt to its unique personality if we are to achieve our ultimate competitive goal of a national championship.”

With the kid from Vegas’ luck and the return of the majority of the starting lineup from last year’s team, they just might double down and win another national championship.