In early May, UC Irvine will host the NCAA tournament for men’s volleyball at the Bren Events Center.
Unfortunately, the Anteaters will not be able to defend their national title here at home.
The Anteaters’ loss to third-ranked Brigham Young University on Saturday marked the end of an up-and-down season. The ‘Eaters finished 16-15 overall.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, fans should not be discouraged or deem UCI men’s volleyball a one-hit wonder: this team is destined for success.
Coach John Speraw said this year’s team reminded him of the 9-20 team of four years ago. That comparison is not exactly a bad one.
That 9-20 team was a young team with players like Matt Webber, Jayson Jablonsky, David Smith and Brian Thornton. If you followed that team at all you know what those guys did in their next two seasons: they made a trip to the final four the following season and won a national championship the next.
Here the Anteaters are again, a young team with extreme potential. Corey Yoder, Kevin Carroll, Kevin Wynne and Anthony Spittle are all freshman. Taylor Wilson’s late-season reemergence and Jon Steller’s break-out season solidify two go-to players and leaders for next season. Freshman Jordan DuFault and junior Cole Reinholm add talented depth, and Speraw will most assuredly surprise us with more freshman talent next season.
It a scary thought, but this Anteater group may turn out to yield better results than the group mentioned before.
Behind all this talent and success is Speraw: He has an incredible knowledge of the game and an un-rivaled mental grasp of it. He has seen the game at every angle. He has seen championships as a player both on the court and on the bench, as an assistant coach and as a head coach. He transformed UCI, a bottom-tier volleyball program, into a national champion in five years. Here he is doing it again.
What makes his coaching style so unique and elite is his emphasis on the psyche. Speraw analyzes the mentality of each situation, and the mentality of each player. He takes percentages into account. With all of that going on in his mind, he comes up with a well-calculated decision on what to do next: what play to call, what player to sub, what formation to set, etc. He is like a chess master, but instead of having full control of his pieces, each piece has a mind of its own which adds an entirely new dimension to his decisions.
“I don’t have an entire grasp on [cognitive development of players] as a coach. It would be my ultimate quest as coach. We are certainly getting a little better at it,” Speraw said.
I wouldn’t say he is getting a little better; he’s a lot better. He has led this young squad to some big victories already this season. The Anteaters defeated Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine and Ohio State and came close to topping BYU and UCLA in the regular season.
“Its impossible to replace experience. The goal is to teach these guys to develop in faster intervals. That’s what we are trying to do.”
With all this knowledge, there is only one other coach I can think of to compare him to: John Wooden.
Though Speraw has not been as successful as Wooden, the knowledge they have of their respective sports, the aura each exhibits and their attention to detail are comparable.
When talking to Speraw, there is an unexplainable aura to him. One can just tell he is a special person.
Wooden disliked dunks because he felt they were showboating tactics, and he taught his players how to wear their socks correctly. Although there are no indications of Speraw having a specific attention to volleyball minutiae, he was disgusted on Wednesday with the USC bench’s wild celebrations after each Trojan point.
“I’ll tell you one thing. We will never ever, ever, do that at UC Irvine.”
Both coaches had and have deep understandings of the game, and recognize the importance of every play on the court. They stress the importance of character and game mentality.
One should not be surprised if John Speraw’s UCI volleyball team has the same success as John Wooden’s Bruins in the near future.