March 10, 2006. I sat with 10 friends in a crowd of 2,817 at the Bren Events Center, watching and cheering for our then second- ranked men’s volleyball team in the nation as they played the top- ranked Brigham Young University. The atmosphere was like nothing I had ever experienced. It was about three-quarters of the way through my freshman year of college and I remember turning to my good friend Iris and saying, “This is the best night of my life.”
I was a college student rooting for the one team in the world I actually had direct affiliation with, UC Irvine. The match was something I will never forget. Five sets, incredible kills, a Brent Asuka dig at the base of the net without any blockers in front of the hitter and a rally from being down 10-6 to topple the best team in the country. Once that last point fell, the student body flooded the court and elation consumed my body. I actually did what I always saw on TV: Storm the court.
After the match, I said again to myself as I walked back to the dorms, “This is the greatest night of my life.”
That was well over three years ago and needless to say, the phrase “This is the best night of my life,” has spilled out of my mouth countless times.
But on Saturday night in Provo, UT at the men’s volleyball National Championship, those words lifted off my tongue with the deepest sincerity a 22-year-old college student can muster.
On Wednesday night, I, along with the Swagger and our photographer Scott Roeder, headed out to Provo without a clue as to what it was going to be like. We went through every scenario. What if the team loses Thursday’s semi-final? What if our hotel sucks? What if the well-mannered citizens of Provo reject us as people? We had our expectations going into the weekend, but none of those even came close to what actually transpired.
The morning after we arrived, we got the call explaining that Coach Speraw had given us the OK to shadow the team throughout the day before its semifinal against Ohio State University. We watched video with the players at 10:00 a.m., got on the bus over to their light pre-game practice and ate lunch with the team before they went to the hotel to rest up before the match.
Throughout the day I could not help but think about how calm the players were. This was as huge of a moment as most of them have ever been part of, and it was as if they knew something no one else knew. They each gave quotes about how pumped they were and how their hard work can pay off, the usual things. But it was clear they had already won the title in their eyes. The only thing stopping them was themselves.
Once we got back to the hotel, the team had informed our little New U camp that the entire student section making the trip out to Provo would also be staying at our same hotel. From that moment on, this trip was not about getting the most in-depth coverage with the most compelling leads. Those were coming to us naturally because of how much access we had to the team.
The trip really became about how much we can enjoy a weekend as students passionately pulling for our team. As far as journalistic status quo is concerned, we were totally wrong about how much we wanted them to win. But why not? I will be a college student for four more weeks and a professional after that for 40 years. We all realized this was our chance to be a part of something special as students and come home to tell about it.
The team swept the Buckeyes in the semifinal, but not before ’Eater Nation made its presence known. At that first match, we had an overwhelming amount of student support compared to all other four teams at the Final Four. Of course, each team had its respectable amount of parents and extended family come to support specific players. But the Irvine faithfuls came out and came out big.
Throughout the day of that semifinal match on Thursday, that night, all of Friday and the Saturday morning before the championship, UCI students were rolling into Provo, and rolling hard. The volleyball girls all cruised out. Women’s water polo made it happen and even some soccer girls made the trip. The entire contingent of “volleyball locals” (if you went to a home volleyball match this year and saw the kids in the wood bleachers, you know who I’m talking about) made it out, and most of them scaled interstate 15 in an epic RV road trip. Brothers, sisters, cousins, girlfriends, parents and grandparents of the team started to flood the 117,000-person city of Provo, all to watch what was expected to be the best final in recent memory.
The final was to be held at the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU, which is best explained as a boutique arena that is small, old and intimate.
The championship match was against hated University of Southern California, and opposing cheering sections sat shoulder to shoulder while the ’Eater Nation contingent of students planted themselves on the far end of the court, ironically in almost the same section as they would sit at the Bren Events Center.
What happened over the course of two and a half hours at this little arena would take me six more pages to fully put into words. Each point was another step toward the title. Each missed hit or bad pass had the crowd holding onto the hope that they would be able to put it out. Each second and each minute simply meant more anxiety.
All I can say is, the moment for those of us in the stands will never be forgotten. Everyone in the stands that night knew at least one of these players personally and it became more than rooting for our school. It became a moment of pushing our will upon them to win. In that moment as a fan, student and friend of the players on the court, it is impossible not to give your heart to what is happening on the court.
And thankfully for those in ’Eater Nation that were violently pulling for UCI Saturday night, the team gave us its hearts back.
Once that final point hit the floor, my heart lifted from my chest, a warrior cry of celebration exploded from my lungs and nothing else in the world mattered.
The student section made its way to the edge of the court and watched, some with tears, some with huge smiles and some locked arm-in-arm as the players received their Championship rings. Once the ceremony was over, everyone flooded the court and a second celebration erupted. Hugs, kisses, face-to-face yells of excitement and memories for years to come were being dished out left and right.
It was a moment of pure joy. The team deserved it, the coaches deserved it and no one in that arena or in the country could deny that.
As the mass eruption of celebration unfolded on that floor, my good friend and senior setter Nick Goldsbrough-Reardon, in the midst of a big hug, lifted my small self off the ground and started yelling, “I’m gonna meet Obama. I’m gonna meet Obama!”
The moment was legendary.
In one night, everything that it meant to be a fan came full circle as I fully invested myself into these guys on the court. And I know for a fact that everyone on the Irvine side, in that arena or at home, can say the same thing.
I have never felt so rewarded than to watch our team grind through an uphill battle in the face of such tough odds. I will never forget that triumphant night in Provo and I know anyone around me in those stands would say the exact same thing.
So on behalf of ’Eater Nation: Thanks, guys.