This year may be the most pivotal year in the history of the UC Irvine sports program. Tradition and stability have officially emerged.
Holding the reigns for the program is 47-year-old Mike Izzi, our first-year athletic director who has 14 years of professional experience from Stanford University. After filling a vacant position as athletic director since the beginning of August, Izzi has already made his presence felt. Perhaps the most notable move he made was to sign men’s volleyball Head Coach John Speraw to a five-year extension—a rarity for UCI coaches in the past. However, that looks to be just one of many moves Izzi will make to help create the UCI athletics program into a program that can be reckoned with the likes of UCLA.
The athletes have already put many of the pieces in place to make it happen.
Of course the baseball team is 28-10, the men’s basketball team came one win away from entering the NCAA tournament and the men’s volleyball team is bound to dominate for the next three seasons, but let’s not let the publicized teams overshadow the depth that the athletics program has beyond those three teams.
The women’s golf program just notched its fourth straight Big West title, while the men did the same for the second consecutive year. The women’s tennis team just competed in its fourth Big West championship match in the past seven years. Dayne Comrie was recently named Big West Track Athlete of the Week for the second time this year and has made the UCI relay team favorites to win the regional championships. All of that occurred just this week.
In the fall, the women’s volleyball team finished with a 21-10 record with its nucleus of stars returning, including Big West Freshman of the Year Kari Pestolesi.
UCI is a legitimate contender in the Big West in almost each one of our sports. Credit the athletes for giving UCI the accolades to make this program much more attractive to recruits than it was five years ago.
The baseball team obliterated the Trojans in the two games it played them in this season, outscoring them a combined 18-6. The Anteaters also took down the Bruins in the one game they’ve played against them so far. Aside from enhancing the Anteaters’ chances of advancing to the college world series for the second straight year, these victories against rivaling Southern California schools make UCI a much more enticing school to attend for top recruits. Southern California is the Mecca for stud high school baseball players. When they’re given the chance to pick any school they choose, they’ll often select the best program in Southern California. It’s hard to argue that program isn’t at UCI. Plus, now that the program finally has a committed head coach, Mike Gillespie, and a young, highly regarded assistant, Pat Shine, the program has stability like never before.
The same can be said about the men’s volleyball squad. While the Anteaters didn’t defend their national championship with a very young team this year, they’re undoubtedly going to flourish as they mature in the next few seasons. Head Coach John Speraw is an indisputable genius—his presence alone has already embedded tradition in the UCI volleyball program.
So UCI has two great programs and several others on the rise, does that make Anteater Nation comparable to the tradition and prestige that UCLA or USC has? To be honest, until our sports arena is named after a Hall of Famer, that probably won’t be the case. Plus, we aren’t anywhere close to having a football team, which is a trademark to being a college sports powerhouse.
That’s exactly why top high school athletes choose UCLA and USC over UCI. It’s no surprise, really. The Bruins and Trojans have been around far longer. They have legendary histories, they spend far more money and as a result, they receive far more media exposure. Naturally, UCI is often left with athletes a tier below UCLA and USC.
Finally, this trend could be changing—it certainly is in baseball and men’s volleyball, now it needs to slowly start happening on the court.
The men’s basketball team is in dire need of a Big West Tournament championship. It would do wonders for recruiting, and after all, men’s basketball is the second-most popular college sport. The best way for UCI athletics to receive more media exposure is to get into NCAA tournament. Once that happens, anything’s possible, just ask San Diego.
Of course, that’s far easier said than done. The men’s team was something close to abysmal in the ’80s and ’90s—many would consider this year’s campaign as a sufficient moral victory.
Izzi’s next step is to allocate more funds for promotion in Irvine and to get investors to bring in more scholarships for the basketball program. It’s a task he has much experience with. One of his fortes at Stanford was developing and implementing fundraising and annual giving strategies.
The baseball program was reinstated in 2001 and made the College World Series in 2007. The men’s volleyball team finished 9-20 in 2005 and went on to win the National Championship in 2007. So much has changed for the best in the sports program at UCI, and with the encouraging stability and commitment the program has finally achieved, the success should only grow.