As students headed to their next class last Tuesday, May 8, the UCI band could be heard from across Ring Road. Waiting on the steps of the Student Center, the band stood facing a crowd composed of UCI’s pep squad, family members, athletics staff and students alike who have awaited the arrival of the UCI men’s volleyball team. The 2012 Division I national champion Anteaters arrived on a bus and filed onto the steps.
“It’s a good day to be an Anteater isn’t it?” the team’s public address announcer, Rob Espero, said after the band finished playing the fight song.
“I’d like to welcome you to the NCAA Championship celebration for your UC Irvine men’s volleyball team, who, if you haven’t heard, received their third national championship […] in the last six years and fourth final four appearance in the last seven.”
Three days after sweeping the USC Trojans at the Galen Center to win their first national championship since 2009, the team stood patiently as Espero went on to announce the players along with a few milestones. Junior Kevin Tillie, who had a match-high 21 kills in UCI’s four-set victory over Penn State University in the NCAA Tournament semifinal, was absent due to a tryout for the French national team. Espero announced that senior opposite Carson Clark became the first player in history to receive first-team All-MPSF honors four times to go along with his four-time AVCA All-American honors.
Junior setter Chris Austin became the first African-American to set a national championship men’s volleyball team. Head Coach John Speraw later commented that hopefully the first black president could invite the first black setter to win a national championship and his team to the White House, much like Speraw and company did after winning UCI’s first title in 2007.
Espero then handed the microphone over to Chancellor Michael V. Drake.
“The difference between A and A+ is huge,” Chancellor Drake said. “And you should always go for A+. Our men’s volleyball program is by all measures an A+.”
Chancellor Drake began to speak of UCI’s first ever law school graduation before landing on the topic of leadership, for which he shifted his attention to the team’s head coach, John Speraw.
“Leadership is being able to [foresee possible complications and to] carry things forward so that the mission is successful,” Chancellor Drake said. “Among these leaders [on campus] that I’ve enjoyed working with over the years is Coach John Speraw.
“To win three [national championships] you have to be absolutely outstanding.”
Chancellor Drake went on to say that he has a few pictures on his desk in his office. A few are of his idol, Willie Mays, his family members and his puppy. But one is of Speraw and Chancellor Drake at the White House after winning the 2007 national title.
“I am so proud, John, of what you’ve brought to this campus and the community and the way you’ve elevated men’s volleyball on this campus. […] We’re here to celebrate the team, but we’re also here to celebrate you. As I mentioned before, you truly are an A+.”
Ten seasons have passed for Speraw in Irvine. The UCLA alumnus has been rumored to be interested in the Bruins’ coaching vacancy for years. With the job opening in Westwood practically calling his name, UCI’s head coach is faced with a dilemma.
“I’m going to have to figure out what everything is, then I’m going to have to sit down with it, if I can find a quiet moment and think about what I want to do with my future career,” Speraw said. “There are some pretty distinct options and they are not similar. So what direction do I want to go in my life? Where do I want to live? Those are big decisions that I have to make.”
Speraw is expected to spend two weeks overseas as the assistant coach of the United States’ national team, as they prepare for the World League tournament in Italy. After returning to the States, Speraw is expected to evaluate any offers he receives from UCI and competitor schools, although Speraw admits that he hasn’t received any offers as of May 8.
Within six weeks, Speraw expects to have a decision as to where he’ll be coaching in 2013.
“Our momentum for support continues to grow,” Speraw said of the team’s following. “Our support on campus continues to get better and I’m just incredibly grateful for all UC Irvine has done for me and this program.
“[UC Irvine] means the world to me. It’s the school that took a chance on an unqualified, unproven assistant coach, and gave me an opportunity to take some chances on my own, and try out my philosophies of my own. And that opportunity, I’m just very grateful for it.”
With senior starters Carson Clark and Dan McDonnell out of eligibility, Speraw still sees national championship potential in future UCI teams, a welcome sign for an institution that must now talk Speraw into remaining an Anteater for life.
“I think the depth that helped us win this year is going to help us win next year, because I think we’re going to be able to replace some of these guys. Zack La Cavera and Kyle Russell at opposite, I think we’ve got good young middles, and everyone else is young, so I think we’re in a position where we could compete for a national championship in the next couple of years.”
Following the ceremony, fans were offered an opportunity to take pictures with and receive autographs from each of the Anteaters. Speraw was part of the action as well. One student turned his back to the coach, providing his shoulder blades as a desk that Speraw could use to inscribe his John Hancock on his blindingly white “National Champions UCI Anteaters” T-shirt. With his familiar black shades on to block out any stray rays of sunlight, Speraw signed the student’s shirt while laughing, as the young man’s friends used Speraw’s new desk to acquire signatures of their own.
“Thanks for the support guys, we’ll see you next year,” Speraw said.
He wasn’t lying. Whether Speraw decides to return to the Bren Events Center as the Anteaters’ coach or the UCLA Bruins’, he’ll be around. For Peter the Anteater’s sake, fans are hoping Speraw returns for a fourth UCI national title run in 2013.
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