The difference between winning a championshipÂ in collegiate volleyball and falling just short, says UC Irvine menâ€™s coachÂ John Speraw, often hinges on the addition of one special player.
After falling just short of a FinalÂ Four appearance last season, Speraw believes he has found a difference maker inÂ KevinÂ Tillie, who came from the French Riviera to Orange County â€” sometimesÂ called the California Riviera â€” via Canada.
In his first year at UCI, theÂ 6-foot-6-inch junior outside hitter â€” known as â€śAir Franceâ€ť to fans â€” hasÂ earned praise as one of the nationâ€™s top players, helping lead the Anteaters toÂ a No. 1 ranking for much of the current season and positioning them for theirÂ third national title in six years.
Tillieâ€™s volleyball pedigree isÂ impeccable: His father, Laurent, was on the 1992 French Olympic team, and hisÂ mother, Caroline, played professionally in Holland.
But after graduating from highÂ school in France, Tillie didnâ€™t meet NCAA eligibility requirements, so heÂ enrolled in Thompson Rivers University in the cold, remote town of Kamloops, BritishÂ Columbia â€” a far cry from his Mediterranean coastal hometown of Cagnes-sur-Mer.
â€śI had a good time there, but afterÂ two years, I wanted a change,â€ť he says. â€śI wanted to play in California. IÂ missed the beach.â€ť
Speraw hadÂ been keeping tabs on Tillie after getting a headâ€™s-up from a friend on a proÂ team in Cannes, France, coached by Laurent. So when Tillie expressed interestÂ in transferring to a U.S. college, Speraw quickly brought him to the UCI campusÂ for a recruiting visit.
â€śI knew Kevin could have an impactÂ on our ability to compete for a championship,â€ť the coach says. â€śHe possessesÂ the skills and the fluid athleticism of a top-flight player, and with hisÂ background, he reads the game really, really well.â€ť
The minute Tillie arrived at UCI,Â his decision was made. Although Irvine is nearly 6,000 miles fromÂ Cagnes-sur-Mer, the climate and nearby beaches were like coming home. He now sharesÂ with teammates a rental on the Balboa Peninsula and has fallen into the easyÂ routine of college life. â€śItâ€™s unbelievable here,â€ť Tillie says.
His impact on the Anteater squadÂ has been immediate, complementing the contributions of returning All-AmericanÂ Carson Clark and emerging stars Daniel Stork and Scott Kevorken. Recognized forÂ his defense and passing abilities, Tillie is also among the national leaders inÂ kills and hitting percentage, and he was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Molten Player of the Week on March 5 after aÂ career-high 22 kills in a UCI victory over then-top-ranked Stanford.
After finishing theirÂ regular season April 14 against UC San Diego, the Anteaters play in the MountainÂ Pacific Sports Federation tournament. The winner of thatÂ receives an automatic berth in the Final Four, which will be held May 3 and 5Â at USC.
This summer, TillieÂ hopes to take his game to an even bigger stage: the Olympic Games in London. HeÂ has an outside chance of making the French national team, having been one ofÂ the final cuts for the squad that reached the quarterfinals in the European VolleyballÂ Championships last year.
â€śIâ€™m playing betterÂ and better, and I hope someday to play professionally in Europe,â€ť Tillie says.Â â€śIâ€™ve had an amazing experience here so far, and some really big opportunities lieÂ ahead.â€ť