Kevin Tillie
“I knew Kevin could have an impact on our ability to compete for a championship,” says UCI men’s coach John Speraw of the 6-foot-6-inch junior known as “Air France,” here going for a kill. “He possesses the skills and the fluid athleticism of a top-flight player.” Glenn Feingerts

The difference between winning a championship in collegiate volleyball and falling just short, says UC Irvine men’s coach John Speraw, often hinges on the addition of one special player.

After falling just short of a Final Four appearance last season, Speraw believes he has found a difference maker in Kevin Tillie, who came from the French Riviera to Orange County — sometimes called the California Riviera — via Canada.

In his first year at UCI, the 6-foot-6-inch junior outside hitter — known as “Air France” to fans — has earned praise as one of the nation’s top players, helping lead the Anteaters to a No. 1 ranking for much of the current season and positioning them for their third national title in six years.

Tillie’s volleyball pedigree is impeccable: His father, Laurent, was on the 1992 French Olympic team, and his mother, Caroline, played professionally in Holland.

But after graduating from high school in France, Tillie didn’t meet NCAA eligibility requirements, so he enrolled in Thompson Rivers University in the cold, remote town of Kamloops, British Columbia — a far cry from his Mediterranean coastal hometown of Cagnes-sur-Mer.

“I had a good time there, but after two years, I wanted a change,” he says. “I wanted to play in California. I missed the beach.”

Speraw had been keeping tabs on Tillie after getting a head’s-up from a friend on a pro team in Cannes, France, coached by Laurent. So when Tillie expressed interest in transferring to a U.S. college, Speraw quickly brought him to the UCI campus for a recruiting visit.

“I knew Kevin could have an impact on our ability to compete for a championship,” the coach says. “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 minute Tillie arrived at UCI, his decision was made. Although Irvine is nearly 6,000 miles from Cagnes-sur-Mer, the climate and nearby beaches were like coming home. He now shares with teammates a rental on the Balboa Peninsula and has fallen into the easy routine of college life. “It’s unbelievable here,” Tillie says.

His impact on the Anteater squad has been immediate, complementing the contributions of returning All-American Carson Clark and emerging stars Daniel Stork and Scott Kevorken. Recognized for his defense and passing abilities, Tillie is also among the national leaders in kills and hitting percentage, and he was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Molten Player of the Week on March 5 after a career-high 22 kills in a UCI victory over then-top-ranked Stanford.

After finishing their regular season April 14 against UC San Diego, the Anteaters play in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. The winner of that receives an automatic berth in the Final Four, which will be held May 3 and 5 at USC.

This summer, Tillie hopes to take his game to an even bigger stage: the Olympic Games in London. He has an outside chance of making the French national team, having been one of the final cuts for the squad that reached the quarterfinals in the European Volleyball Championships last year.

“I’m playing better and better, and I hope someday to play professionally in Europe,” Tillie says. “I’ve had an amazing experience here so far, and some really big opportunities lie ahead.”