Last season, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team captured our hearts before baseball’s historic run in the college world series.
They allowed us to hold our heads up when we were in conversation with our friends from sports powerhouses like USC and Cal.
Though volleyball is not a widely publicized popular sport, the team brought a sense of pride to the student body, and they showed that sports could dramatically reinforce school spirit on campus.
Many believed that UCI, which has not pumped the same amount of money into its athletic program as more well-known schools, would not be able to consistently succeed in athletics.
The UCI men’s volleyball team, so long as it is under the guidance of head coach John Speraw, will prove the critics wrong.
Many were excited for the defending national champions to take the courts again this season, and replicate the success of last season; however, they were disappointed by the 3-5 start to the season for the ‘Eaters.
I, myself, have been hurt seeing that the one team that brought home a national title looks like it is a one-hit wonder after all.
Wrong: look at what the team lost in the off-season. The Anteaters saw four All-Americans graduate: Brian Thornton, David Smith, Matt Webber and Jayson Jablonsky. Smith, Webber and Jablonsky accounted for 1,291 of 1,985 of the Anteaters’ kills last season. Thornton recorded 1,645 assists on the season as setter, while playing almost every game in its entirety.
What the Anteaters lost in offensive production from those four was not comparable to the loss of their experience and leadership.
However, let’s not forget the man who made those players who they are.
John Speraw is one of only two people to have won a national championship as a head coach, assistant coach and player.
He inherited a weak 13-year-old men’s volleyball program with decreasing funding when he came to UCI from assistant coaching at his alma mater, UCLA. Despite these obstacles, Speraw was able to maximize their potential and build a contender. Speraw came in with a five-year plan to lead UCI to a national champion, and fulfilled his plan.
UCI’s first year among the elite was not last year. In 2006, the team won its first Mountain Sports Federation title with a 20-2 league record. The team made it to the Final Four, and was eventually ousted by runner-up Penn State. The successes proved to be no fluke. UCI came back even stronger, more focused and determined in 2007. We all know what happened.
I spoke with the lone Anteater All-American first team member David Smith after a regular season game last year about the status of the team after the 2007 campaign, and he said, ‘[Jablonsky, Webber, Thornton and I] were nobodies when we came in. We only came to UCI to play volleyball because they were the only ones who recruited us. Speraw brought us to where we are today. I have no doubt the team will be in good hands next year.’
Speraw’s 99 wins at UCI in his five years here are more than the combined total wins from the first 13 years of the program. He has put UCI in the top 10 final rankings in all but one year.
So, Speraw has shown that he can lead and he is a legitimate coach, but you may ask what is up with the poor start to this season? The answer to that question is very simple.
John Speraw is not even with the team. He has been serving on the U.S. National Team coaching staff, where he is being groomed to take over. The assistant coaches should not be discredited. They have kept a young and inexperienced Anteater squad at check in the absence of Speraw.
The only significant contributors to last season’s team who have returned are Taylor Wilson, Aaron Harrell, Brent Asuka and Cole Reinholm. Even though none of them received national accolades last season, they have been well exposed to Anteater leadership.
Talk to junior Taylor Wilson and you can tell that he understands the expectations that come with the respected UCI men’s volleyball program. He is extremely focused and very goal-oriented; characteristics that the Anteater power four exhibited last season.
When Speraw, who has been a National Coach of the Year finalist three of the last four years, returns he will get this young and talented squad together.
The Daily Pilot tabbed John Speraw as one of its Most Influential people last year. I have no doubt in my mind that his influence will turn this young season around and establish UCI as a volleyball powerhouse in the coming years.
(Note to Administration: Please re-sign John Speraw after his contract expires at the end of season!)