It was only fitting that the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team received a champion’s welcome after returning from Ohio State with the NCAA National Championship.
Following the team’s remarkable run through the postseason, the athletic department held an on-campus rally on Wednesday, May 9 at the flag poles to celebrate the team’s accomplishment.
About 350 students, fans and parents gathered to welcome the team that beat Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne 3-1 on May 5 to capture the program’s first ever NCAA Title.
Head Coach John Speraw said he was amazed at the turnout and thanked the fans for their support this season.
‘I was fortunate enough to win titles in the past,’ Speraw said, referring to the two national titles he captured as a player for UCLA in the early 1990s. ‘But I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is tremendous.’
Chancellor Michael Drake, Athletic Director Bob Chichester and Executive Vice Chancellor Michael Gottfredson also gave speeches congratulating the players and coaches, who came to the ceremony on two specially designed OCTA buses featuring large photos of the players and a sign reading, ‘Orange County is Anteater Country.’
Fourth-year Co-Captain Brian-Thornton was the only player to give a speech and described the team’s postseason run as unforgettable.
‘I’ve had a smile on my face this entire week,’ Thornton said. ‘It has probably been the best week of my life.’
The players and coaches also received a surprise when the White House called the team and invited them to Washington on June 19 to take part in a ceremony honoring some of the NCAA Champions during the past season.
‘It’s always an unbelievable honor when you have the chance to visit the White House,’ Speraw said. ‘We’re looking forward to the visit and its going to be a great experience for some of the players and the program.’
During the ceremony, Speraw described how his team was able to pull off three come-from-behind wins against Hawaii University, Birmingham Young University and Pepperdine University during the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament and beat Penn State and IPFW in the NCAA Championship.
‘It was really about our team chemistry and our ability to work well together, and our total focus and dedication to winning,’ Speraw said.
The team later gave Drake and Gottfredson volleyball’s signed by the entire team and also revealed the championship trophy to the fans with Queen’s famous song ‘We are the Champions’ playing in the background.
The National Title has also brought tremendous amounts of attention to Speraw and the volleyball program, which finished the 2005 season with a 9-20 record but was able to make consecutive Final Four appearances in the following two years.
‘I’ve been getting e-mails from guys I haven’t talked to or played volleyball with since I was about 16 years old,’ Speraw said a few days after the ceremony. ‘It’s been a wonderful experience with the volleyball community showing us a lot of support and hopefully we can do it again next season.’