John Speraw lifted his right arm in triumph. Aaron Harrell dropped to his knees. Matt Webber started to pile onto his teammates—three different reactions, culminating one remarkable season.
The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team captured its first ever NCAA Championship with a 3-1 victory over Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday, May 5 at St. John’s Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The win put the finishing touches on a 2007 season which saw UCI break the school record for most wins (29), capture the school’s first ever Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Title and finally bring home the National Championship.
The final score of the match was 30-24, 24-30, 30-23, 30-28.
“It was an amazing experience,” said sophomore John Stellar. “Coming into this season this is exactly what we wanted to accomplish.”
“It’s all kind of surreal right now,” added senior Brian Thornton.
UCI was in control of the match for the most part, splitting the first two games and capturing the third game for a 2-1 lead.
The fourth game proved to be a bit more of a challenge as neither team could build more than a one- point advantage.
UCI drew first blood, however, with senior Jayson Jablonsky smashing a kill to give his team a 19-18 advantage.
IFPW’s C.J. Macias helped the Anteaters’ cause, hitting the next two kill chances out of bounds to push the UCI lead to 21-18. The Anteaters expanded that lead to 26-22 and looked well on their way to capturing the fourth game and national title.
But as quickly as the Anteaters built their lead, they let it slip away.
IPFW scored the next four points, much to the delight of the 4,700 plus fans in attendance, mostly rooting for the Mastodons.
The game was tied at 27 apiece until the Anteaters got some much-needed help from two of its seniors.
Senior David Smith converted on a kill attempt down the middle of the court to give UCI a 28-27 lead.
On the next play, Smith kept a potential Mastodon kill alive as he fell to his left. The play led to a kill by senior Matt Webber – his 22nd of the night – to give UCI championship point at 29-27.
Smith hit his serve into the net on the ensuing possession, allowing IPFW to cut the UCI lead to 29-28.
Still just one point away from the national title, UCI got a break when IPFW’s Colin Lundeen’s serve went out of bounds, clinching the win for Irvine.
“One of the most important [lessons] is playing one point at a time,” said UCI Head Coach John Speraw. “When it mattered most, when it was 26 all, I told them [that] in a timeout.”
Webber closed the chapter on his illustrious career walking away as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, though he was quick to spread the glory to all his teammates.
“MVP to me doesn’t really mean much because we did it. We played as a team the whole way through. For one person to stand out, it doesn’t make sense. These guys standing beside me – the same with myself – we are a bunch of nobodies if we don’t play well together. To get MVP it’s a big honor and I share it with the rest of [the team],” Webber said.
With the win, Speraw became only the third coach in history to win a NCAA title as both a head coach and player. In five short years, he has turned the volleyball program from an afterthought to a national champion.
“I’m obviously incredibly proud of the four guys standing here,” a very emotional Speraw said, referring to his seniors Thornton, Jablonsky, Smith and Webber. “People like to find solutions or understand why we have had the success we have had, and the one thing that is true is that the effort of these four men and the other guys in the gym is why we are here. Together we have learned so much during the past five years. I think that I have learned more from them than they have from me and its been my pleasure to work with them.”
Sophomore Brent Asuka, who recorded five digs, talked about how a group of guys offered little to no scholarships entering college could win the national title.
“We all came together after not being highly recruited out of high school and Speraw just taught us how to play volleyball,” Asuka said, who was a walk-on player along with many of his fellow teammates. “That’s what we did all year, just play great team volleyball.”
Speraw credited the team’s late season success to learning from its earlier loses in the season. He cited UCI’s upset loss against UCLA and what he described as a sluggish performance from his players. After the loss, the Anteaters were undefeated and played their best volleyball of the season.
“The losses that we have this year were incredibly valuable to us,” Speraw said. “For me, all those losses are exactly why we are here today.”
All four seniors for UCI played key roles in the win and walked away from their sport with the biggest prize of their careers.
Jablonsky recorded 18 kills, Thornton had 59 assists, Smith continued his dominant play with 13 kills and Webber was named MVP.
“This year I come into this press conference knowing that these four guys and the rest of the 18 at the gym have succeeded,” Webber said. “We have definitely come a long way and I couldn’t be happier.”
UCI will lose its four key seniors but will have plenty of star players returning next season.
“We are just trying to enjoy the moment right now,” said junior Aaron Harrell. “Me, [sophomore Brett] Asuka and [sophomore Taylor] Wilson were together and saying ‘Let’s try to get to the championships again next year’ but it’s hard to think about that because we want to relish in the moment of winning our first title.”
NCAA Semifinals (Thursday, May 5)
UCI Beats Penn State; Advances to NCAA Finals
Revenge was swift and sweet for the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team.
After being knocked out of the NCAA semifinals a season ago to Penn State University, the Anteaters got redemption with a 3-1 win over the Nittany Lions in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday, May 3 at St. John’s Arena.
The win pushed the Anteaters into the NCAA Finals for the first time in school history where they would take on Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne. IPFW advanced by pulling a remarkable upset against No. 1 seed Pepperdine.
Last season, UCI was the early favorite to win the NCAA Title but was upset by Penn State 3-2.
On Thursday, UCI came out a lot quicker, stronger and poised as it captured both games one and two to build an early 2-0 lead.
The Nittany Lions battled back, winning the third game but the Anteaters’ experience and play at the net was too much for their opponents to handle in the deciding fourth game.
The final score was 30-25, 30-22, 26-30, 30-23 in UCI’s favor.
“Last year [Penn State] upset us and it was devastating,” said senior opposite Matt Webber. “We had a great run all season long and to end it that way was pretty rough. As soon as we knew that we were going up against them it was all business. We were fired up, we were ready and we were ready to get some redemption. So to get it tonight was very fulfilling.”
One of the key reasons for the UCI win was its ability to limit its service errors. The team had combined for over 60 service errors in its previous two games and Head Coach John Speraw said his team’s best service game was still ahead.
He turned out to be right.
UCI committed just 16 service errors compared to Penn State’s 21.
The Anteaters were dominant in key stretches of the game, never putting their lead in jeopardy.
“The teams that are the best are the ones that are able to score the crucial points after 20,” Speraw said. “We just made the plays when we needed to.”
“It seemed like any time we would get some momentum, we would end up shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Penn State Head Coach Mark Pavlik, after leading the team to its ninth straight NCAA Appearance. “But you got to give UCI credit. Anytime you let them hang out and don’t put balls away or throw balls out of bounds, they will make you pay.”