Two UCI Programs Ranked Number One in the Nation? Believe It

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We fly high, U-C-I, you know it!

Now that I have the cheese out of the way, let me get even straighter to the point. UC Irvine sports have never been better. I repeat, never been better!

For the first time since 1971, when we were introduced to the Division I format, we have two sports teams ranked among the top in the nation. Men’s volleyball and baseball are both number one in their respective polls.

Can you believe this? I don’t even think I can. Sure, we aren’t number one in the two most meaningful college sports, football and basketball, but baseball is third and college volleyball is at its most competitive level ever.

Women’s water polo even won the Big West Tournament Sunday.

Men’s soccer already had its most successful season yet by making it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. This could be the best year for UCI yet.

But let’s focus on the two top-ranked teams and how they got there.

Coach John Speraw will go down in history as one of the best coaches in any sport ever. Mark my words. He came to UCI with a five-year plan and turned a losing program into a powerhouse, leading UCI to two Final Four appearances and one national title. His unique coaching style, unparalleled understanding of the game and his legendary aura have made UCI the “it” program for college volleyball. The talent and the competition that he has established in the program is comparable to that of the USC football program under Pete Carroll. He has brought in rich recruiting classes and honed them into warriors. The first team gets to practice with a second team that could conceivably be ranked in the top 10 if it were its own team. Moreover, the competition makes everyone better and the team more cohesive. Above all, it wreaks havoc on opponents.

Speraw has the option of putting in a fresh, equally-as-talented squad to replace the starters if they aren’t up for the task.

This year’s squad has five players who are on the All Mountain Pacific Sports Federation team. Carson Clark leads the cast as the Freshman of the Year and first team member. Did I mention that he is only a freshman? He joins Brent Asuka as the only two Anteaters who earn first team honors as freshmen. Oh yeah, Asuka is still on this team.

Ryan Ammerman was the only other Anteater to join Clark on the other team, but if I were a betting man, I would bet that any of the other starters would be on the first team if they were on another conference team.

Sophomores Kevin Wynne and Jordan DuFault were named to the second and third teams, respectively. Senior Taylor Wilson, who recorded a career-high 29 kills against UCLA on Saturday, was awarded Honorable Mention.

I don’t have enough space to rave about other players like Corey Yoder, Jon Stellar and Austin D’Amore. But make sure you make your way Thursday to the Bren Events Center and on Saturday for the semifinal and final match-ups. The Bren will be rockin’.

The UCI baseball team has experienced a rise similar to that of the men’s volleyball program. In 2007, the year we won the first national volleyball title, UCI surprised the nation and made it fall in love with the Anteaters on their historic run to the College World Series in Omaha. UCI proved that it was no fluke, advancing to the Super Regionals the following year in LSU. The team was only three outs away from advancing to the CWS for the second straight year before a catastrophic blow-up gave the Tigers the turnaround they needed. Fueled by that hunger and with a surprising freshman class, UCI baseball is back at it again.

The team has not lost a weekend series yet, and has already taken care of the best teams in the best conference on the West Coast.

Yes, the Big West is better than the Pac-10 when it comes to baseball.

UCI knocked off California State University Fullerton when they were ranked number one, and even swept a Cal Poly team whose offense is being heralded as one of the best in the nation.

This Anteater team is different than the last two squads. They have a different brand of offense; the 2007 squad played vintage small-ball, manufacturing runs off hits, stolen bases and bunts. Last year’s team did the same but with more of a focus on hitting. This year’s squad knows how to flat-out hit. They aren’t gifted in the home run category, though they have hit more than the last two squads. Francis Larson leads the team with eight and Brock Bardeen has seven hits, six of which are for home runs. Besides these two, the rest of the line-up is moving runners on base with well-timed hits, and they are bringing them often. Twelve Anteaters hold averages over .290.

The offense isn’t the only dimension getting it done; the UCI pitching is as vintage as ever. UCI is led by staff ace Daniel Bibona, who is 7-1 with a 2.25 ERA, and Christian Bergman, who is also 7-1 with a 2.50 ERA. The relief pitching is led by Preseason All American candidate Eric Pettis, who has an ERA of 2.75 and was the national saves leader with 13 early this week.

The biggest surprise for the Anteaters has been the play from the freshmen. Ronnie Shaeffer, Tommy Reyes and DJ Crumlich have established themselves as everyday starters and are all batting over .290. Shaeffer leads the team at .398 and Reyes isn’t too far behind with .365.

The point is that this is an inspired, exciting and solid team. It is ranked first in the nation and has a commanding four-game lead (11-1) over second place Cal Poly (8-5) in the Big West, which is the best. UCI’s remaining conference foes are the worst of the conference, including California State University Northridge, Pacific and UC Santa Barbara.

Expect UCI to be the host for regional and super regional action, but don’t wait until then. Anteater Ballpark will be in action on Tuesday and all of this next weekend. UCI sports are legitimately the hot ticket in town, and are at their hotest ever.

I am so proud to say that we could have more than one team in the NCAA Tournament this year, let alone this season.

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