The coaches in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference picked the UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team to finish eighth overall this season in their preseason coach’s poll. Looks like the Anteaters are having the last laugh.
Coming off a ninth place conference finish, and 9-20 overall record in 2005, the UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team was supposed to have some growing pains this season. Yet the Anteaters have flourished under the tutelage of fourth-year Head Coach John Speraw and his staff, steam-rolling to 21 straight victories to claim the No. 1 overall ranking in the nation.
Having won every match since a 3-0 sweep at the hands of Hawai’i in January, UCI compiled a 27-3 overall record (20-2 MPSF) and won their first regular-season conference title, allowing them to host the semifinals and finals of the MPSF tournament April 27 and 29 at the Bren Events Center.
The team’s success is not lost on Speraw. ’20-2 is a pretty significant achievement in this conference,’ he said. ‘I don’t think [my players] ever got ahead of themselves. They still remember they were 9-20 the year before and 7-15 in league.’
The scary thing for the rest of the country is the top-ranked Anteaters are relatively young to be having the success they’re having this season.
The Anteaters only lose two seniors at the end of the year—outside hitters Paul Spittle and Steffin Rengel. The rest of the squad will be back, including juniors Matt Webber and Jayson Jablonski who lead the Anteaters in points per game with 5.43 and 4.90, respectively.
By starting a young lineup the past two seasons, the talented Anteaters have formulated a potent elixir of team chemistry, which is paying big dividends this year.
‘In general, we’re just more experienced and more skilled at every position on the court and that just comes with time and training,’ Speraw said. ‘Last year, obviously, we were really young … in the long-run maybe [playing young players was] beneficial for us where we had so many guys get such great experience at a young age.’
He added, ‘Webber’s become a better hitter. Jablonski’s become a better server, passer. Spittle’s clearly become a better force at the net. [Junior setter Brian] Thornton’s became more experienced.’
With a historic regular season under their belts (they set school record for wins), the Anteaters will try and cap their streak with four more victories—making them national champions.
The team will host conference rival Long Beach State on Thursday night to open the semifinals of the tournament. If the Anteaters win, they’ll face the winner of UCLA (who stunned No. 2 Hawaii in Saturday’s quarterfinals) and defending national champion Pepperdine.
Speraw feels the competition for this year’s MPSF tournament championship is wide open.
‘If you look at our opponents, Long Beach State has been playing great. … Pepperdine is huge … and has given us our other conference loss. UCLA is firing hot this time of year.’
UCI will have a leg up on the rest of tournament field by having home court advantage for the tournament. UCI is an undefeated 16-0 at home this season and, in the team’s three matches at the Bren Center this season, drew crowds of 2,817 against BYU, 2,223 against Pepperdine and 1,400 against UC Santa Barbara in the season finale.
Despite these high turnouts, Speraw feels more fans need to show up to truly give UCI a significant home court advantage.
‘We gotta have more than that,’ Speraw said. ‘My concern is that … there’s a real chance that on Monday or Tuesday [after the MPSF final four has been decided] the Bren Center could sell out.’
Tickets are already on sale for both the two semifinal matches on Thursday (at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. respectively), as well as the championship match on Saturday night at 7 p.m. Student tickets cost $5 per day or $10 dollars for both days. Adult tickets cost $20 dollars per day or $30 dollars for both sessions.
However, thanks to some generous donations to the Men’s Volleyball program, 500 lucky students will get in free for Thursday’s matches (as well as Saturday’s, should UCI advance to the conference final). Tickets will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to the first 500 students who line up outside the Bren on Wednesday at noon (and Friday at noon if UCI advances to the conference finals). Students will need to bring a valid student ID to get their ticket.
Hopefully for UCI, those tickets will provide the team the support they need to book a flight to Penn State for the national semifinals on May 4.