The UC San Diego men’s volleyball team, playing a shortened but grueling schedule made up entirely of opponents from Big West, finished 3-12 in the 2021 regular season. But after winning their first Division I playoff victory over California State University, Northridge, the Tritons beat the undefeated Hawaii No.1 National in a massive upset, but couldn’t repeat the feat one night later in the final against UC Santa Barbara. The Guardian spoke with UCSD 16th-grade head coach Kevin Ring to talk about the pandemic-hit season, a historic Big West tournament run, and more.
This season has obviously been very unusual. What kinds of adjustments have you had to make this season to accommodate all the changes, both in schedules and with COVID protocols?
Throughout the fall we had a very unconventional training block. Most of our training was socially distanced, we weren’t able to play 6v6 in the training gym, we couldn’t have forwards hitting against blockers, so we had to adjust our way a lot. train us.
We were still able to serve and pass and hit and block at different times, but it was a lot more individual work – which is still very valuable, but you just don’t get the team dynamic to put in your blocking and your offensive systems.
Throughout the fall we watched what the season would look like. We were still trying to program with teams outside of the Great West, but it was still very uncertain… We got to a point where the Great West basically said we weren’t going to face non-Big West opponents at all. throughout the year, and that we wouldn’t play until the end of February. We were able to win four non-conference matches against opponents from Big West – we played twice at UC Santa Barbara and [the University of] Hawaii twice in late February and the first part of March – before we got into our ten conference games.
Regarding all protocols, [there was] obviously a lot of testing, with weekly testing and sometimes multiple tests per week, daily projections of how guys feel, coaches included. I think the guys did a great job just to make this happen. There were so many protocols, and I appreciate the support of our administration, our athletic training room, and Claire Pointer, our track coach, to put us in a position where we could have workouts and ultimately matches.
But when it comes to being in the gym and training, it’s still about training volleyball and trying to get guys to improve, giving them a lot of good reps and great comments so I think the guys made the most of it.
Coming into the Big West tournament, that opener against CSUN was the program’s first playoff win at the Division I level. How it feels to have finally hit that milestone, especially after the end of the previous season?
You mentioned last season, and yes at the end of the season we were 14-5, ranked No.6 in the country, we had a really great season. We had maybe played three conference games by then, so we had seven more and then the conference tournament. Unfortunately, this did not happen for us. But before this year and then in the conference tournament, there are only six teams in the conference and here we are.
We were the seeded four against Cal State Northridge. We had beaten them twice in the regular season – beat them in threes at home, and then we had a very competitive close game where we beat them in five at home. So I knew that it was definitely a talented team and that there were some really good athletes there. So, so that we can go out and also go all this way on neutral ground, I think we played a really good game.
The sets were close, but I was really proud of the guys, and – I’m an alumnus of the program. I played here at UCSD, and after the game I said, let me speak for all of the men’s volleyball alumni and just thank the guys for their efforts. It’s something that for years now, whether we’re in the MPSF as a Division II program, and then now in the Great West, it’s something we’ve been shooting for a long, long time.
So to get that this first one was really special. The guys played well and it was well deserved. But the nature of the tournament is, well, this one is over and we’re set up to play three games in three days, so you have a quick turnaround – to beat Northridge, then face the No. 1 seed in the game. University of Hawaii.
Coming into the game against Hawaii, they weren’t only the nation’s undefeated No.1 home team, but they also had four wins against your team over the course of the season. What was your in-game message to prevent this from happening again?
Easier said than done, that’s for sure. They are number one in the country for a reason. They are very good, very talented and [the player] who ended up being the AVCA [American Volleyball Coaches Association] Player of the year was their opposite [Rado Parapunov]. It is therefore a tall order to try to slow it down. I thought we had a good game plan against him, and we executed it well. I think the guys were motivated and focused, and the clashes we had and the way the guys played them worked in our favor.
It lasted five sets, and the three sets we won were all draws where we won by two points, with the fifth set being 18-16. These are close games, and that’s something we talked about earlier in the year when we lost some of those close games. We wanted it to be more than just a lucky draw, just the luck of the draw. When you’re that close, when it’s 20-all, 22-all, 23-all, who’s going to win this set? It shows a lot of maturity on the part of the team and the experience of making exhilarating late-game games to do so. So I was very proud of the efforts there, and it was just a huge and exciting victory.
Again, that just meant hey, we still had one more game the next night before the final, but still a historic win for us – beating a No.1 ranked team, a team of Hawaii’s caliber. We’ve beaten Hawaii in the past, but this stage was perhaps one of the biggest games in our program history, and to have a win is pretty huge.
Where would you say this victory falls in your time in the program?
Well, I played here when we won the Division III Invitational, and a championship is a championship, so that was very meaningful for this group.
But certainly, during my time here as a head coach for 16 years, I would rate this very high. The stage it was on, and it was a conference game against a nation’s No.1 team on their playoff ground, that meant a lot.
After the game against Hawaii, how well do you celebrate the loss of the best team in the land, while keeping an eye out for a tough opponent the following night?
Obviously the guys celebrated right after the game on the pitch. There was really a lot of excitement for the fans who got to watch this game, and in the locker room afterwards, how excited the guys were and how impacted it was for them. At the same time that you are on such an emotional level, we all knew we had a really good opponent the next night in Santa Barbara. Obviously they had beaten us in the regular season… We had a few close games with them and we felt it was a team we might be able to win. [against]. We knew it was going to be tough, but like you said, it’s definitely a balance to celebrate this victory.
I think we got out the next day and got into that game, that we had a little lead halfway through the second set, so I don’t think we had any kind of emotional hangover from the big one. victory over Hawaii the night before. We came out with a very focused game, it was good two-way volleyball, and we played at a high level in the first and second set. Then, unfortunately, we failed.
This is where the regular season comes in, and the seeding. Hawaii was the No. 1 seed and Santa Barbara was No. 2, so they only played on Friday and the final was Santa Barbara’s game two. It was our third game in three days, and it’s a lot, but that was the situation we were in and we didn’t back down. We gave everything, but there is a fatigue that goes with it. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t have won the game, and I think we did a lot of good things to put ourselves in a position to do so. Even losing that second set and going into the third and fourth, it’s still close games and we still had our chances.
So I’m really proud of the distance and how hard the guys have fought throughout the season. Looking at what we’ve accomplished over the year, I think we’ve played 18 games in total. Well, 11 of them were against Hawaii, ranked # 1, or Santa Barbara, ranked # 3. 11 of our 18 games, so it’s a brutally tough game. That’s just how it turned out, but these are fun games to play, and that will only help us move forward.
Once again, this season has been very unusual, but crowned with some great wins at the end. Now that you have both the first playoff win and the loss of a No.1 team under your belt, how do you try to build on that for next season?
I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly what next year will look like. I think there are a lot of people who are optimistic that a lot of things are getting a bit more normal. In our world, it may be a more standard season, non-conference games, starting competition in January. So I hope this is where we are at.
With that, we know the Big West Conference tournament will be back in Hawaii next year, and we know all six teams will be participating. We’re going to fight and claw so we can be one of the first two seeds, and get that bye so that we don’t have to play Thursday, and play until Friday night’s game. It puts you in a little better position there.
So for us, I think the guys are really motivated. When you compete at a very high level and you are in that position, it becomes addicting. Guys want to come back to it, and we want to have these kinds of games, meaningful games, to win and move forward, fight and fight to put us in a position to enter the NCAA tournament.
Photo courtesy of Derrick Tuskan / UC San Diego Athletics