When the New University approached UC Irvine men’s volleyball head Coach John Speraw to ask about the starting lineup for this volleyball preview issue, he said he was not sure.
Normally, this would be a very worrisome answer. However, coach Speraw has probably the best problems any coach could ever have: too much talent. Since UCI made the Final Four in 2006 and won the NCAA championship in 2007, Speraw has established UCI as a volleyball powerhouse, despite finishing 16-15 overall and 11-11 in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play.
The young talent used for the first time last season, has one year of experience under its belt, and UCI will seriously contend for a national title again this season with a squad that arguably has the most depth in the nation.
Speraw did, instead, offer the four leaders of this year’s squad, the four players around whom he will construct a team, the foundation of this year’s team.
Senior Brent “Sake Bomb” Asuka will return for his final year as one of the most decorated players in program history. The Hawaii native was the first libero and UCI player ever selected as the MPSF Newcomer of the Year his freshman year. He was also a first team All-American that season. He helped UCI to the title his sophomore year and became the all-time digs leader at UCI at the end of his junior year with 875. He got his nickname from assistant coach Mark Presho, who found Asuka to sound like sake, and the name eventually morphed into “Sake Bomb.”
Fellow senior Nick “Nicky Six” Spittle does not have a set position on the UCI roster, but will serve as the utility man. He can play anywhere in the back row, but will be used primarily as a serving specialist. He has three different serves in his arsenal: the standard jump serve, the jump floater, and chip-shot cut serve. The last, which looks exactly like a jump serve, but cuts at the last moment, catches the defense by surprise.
He is the second of three Spittle brothers to have gone through the program. Younger brother Anthony is a sophomore setter on the squad. Nick got his nickname from Nicky Six of Motley Crew. Spittle also wears the number six on his jersey.
Sophomores Corey “Yodes” Yoder and Kevin “Fash” Wynne embody the solid core of the team. At the outside hitter position, Yoder will lead the front row of the UCI offense. He recorded double-digit kills 16 times last season, including a high of 20 kills against the University of Hawaii last year. The valedictorian at San Clemente High School has the intelligence to adapt to and access his opponents.
Wynne returns as the middle blocker. The 6-foot-7-inch giant was eighth in the MPSF and 15th nationally in blocks. His .403 hitting percentage was also good for second on the team and 17th in the country. His nickname was actually given to him because, as Spittle says, “he has a tough time keeping his mouth closed, like a fish.” But the change of pronunciation was made by the accent of Presho.
When asked about the biggest surprises the Anteaters will have this season, Wynne immediately mentions his competition at the middle blocker position, Austin D’Amore. The freshman was an All-American as a senior at Laguna Hills High School.
“He can make some big plays and has the ability to make big blocks,” Wynne said.
D’Amore is just one of a plethora of players who are giving Coach Speraw a headache.
There is so much talent on this team, with players like Cole Reinholm, Jordan DuFault, Taylor Wilson and Kevin Carroll, to name a few.
Coach Speraw has done with the UCI men’s volleyball program what Pete Carroll did with the USC football team: competition in practice that is as good, if not better, than top competition.
“It’s good because you know that if anyone goes down, you have someone to come and fill in just as well,” Spittle said.
Last year, we saw the 6-foot-8-inch Ryan Ammerman split time with Anthony Spittle as setter, and they provided for a solid setter in every game. If the Anteaters needed additional blocking, they plugged in Ammerman. If Ammerman wasn’t working, Spittle did. The tandem has more competition with Ball State transfer Nick Reardon and Jeff Schmitz.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is the competition between senior opposite hitter Jon Steller and freshman opposite hitter Carson Clark. Steller was an All-American last season and arguably the best attacker on the team. However, Clark is an explosive lefty with a power arm and exceptional leaping ability. Steller seems to have an edge over Clark for now in the starting spot, but Clark will give him a run for his money.
“They give us some good depth; any one of those guys can go off on any night. Steller is an All-American, and Carson will win multiple All-American awards in the future,” said Asuka.
The Steller-Clark story is the epitome of the environment that Speraw has created here at UCI: you have to compete to play.
“Practices are definitely more fun,” Yoder said.
“It isn’t a surprise when our second team beats our first team,” Spittle said.
Coach Speraw’s goal as a coach has been to figure out the physical and mental potential of each of his athletes, and he has it down to a science. He has the resume to prove his success: championships as a player, assistant coach, coach and a gold medal (in later years, as an assistant at the Olympic games). Once he figures out the right formula with this team, the results could be frightening.
The men’s volleyball team could take a similar track as the men’s soccer team. Both teams had successful teams two years ago, then rough seasons with new teams and new faces, and then returned with the young impressive talent more seasoned. We all know what happened with the men’s soccer team (Sweet 16).
“A lot of us are more comfortable. Last year we were trying to figure it out, but this year I think we have it figured out already,” Yoder said.
Yoder may be right, as the sixth-ranked Anteaters defeated the second-ranked UCLA Bruins on Saturday in the UCSB Elephant Bar Collegiate Invitation in straight sets behind 15 kills from DuFault and 13 kills, seven digs, and five aces from Clark.
Despite an early loss to rival Long Beach State, the Anteaters have already won three.
The foundation of the team is set, and with the best architect in college volleyball having all the right tools to create a masterpiece, the UCI volleyball team will be a must-see sport.
You will not want to miss a game, not even a practice.