Second Title in Three Years

Scott Roeder | Staff Photographer

Scott Roeder | Staff Photographer

With eyes red and puffy and his heart on a sleeve, Coach John Speraw summed up the NCAA championship-winning 2009 men’s volleyball season up in one sentence.

“That was an epic battle,” Speraw said.

The Anteaters faced a ruthless University of Southern California on Saturday night, and with the lights shining, cameras rolling and the crowd pulling, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team finished the Trojans off in an unbelievable display of will, winning the title in five sets, 26-30, 30-23, 26-30, 30-17, 15-12.

After the match, the Most Valuable Player, senior Ryan Ammerman, pushed through his tears to explain what this title meant to him.

“Before the match I was only thinking one thing: just win. That’s all. Just win. I was not thinking about my family out in the crowd. I was thinking about my family sitting next to me on the bench. This was absolutely amazing,” Ammerman said.

After losing the first set in a tough point-for-point battle, the match had a momentum reminiscent to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) semifinal just one week prior, which knocked Irvine out of the Conference Championship Tournament.

This match, however, would not follow that same pattern, as the ’Eaters came into the second set to battle for the win and tie the match, 2-2.

“We talked all season long about how we were a team that could grind and tonight we really lived up to that,” Speraw said. “All year long I also preached how this game is about runs, and it was clear in that second set [that] this was not going to be a match about runs. The guys had to make that adjustment and they did.”

With the match tied at 1-1, the third set was crucial. The Trojans knew this more than anyone else on the court. They stepped up their play at the net as middle Austin Zahn hammered in five of his 15 kills to put his Trojans up by four, 24-28. The Anteaters were not able to answer. All-American Freshman Carson Clark was blocked on the last point to give the Trojans the win, 26-30.

However, the fourth set would not follow the same pattern. The Anteaters increased the pressure as they faced the Trojans, down two games to one, and started to fire away. The offensive effort was not to be matched. Senior Taylor Wilson knocked down four kills in that fourth set, but it was the lack of offense by the Trojans that became the looming issue of the night with the previously potent serving nowhere to be found for the Trojans.

Live by the serve, die by the serve.

The Trojans flubbed four of their 22 serving errors in that set and made it an easy victory for the Anteaters who at one point were up 28-16. The Anteaters finished off the now-struggling USC squad, 30-17, setting up an intense game five that would cap off one of the most memorable championships in recent history.

As the crowd all rose to its feet, the fifth set was poised to produce fireworks. The Trojans struck first and were keen on not allowing Irvine to get any type of rhythm on defense. But the Anteaters pushed through as one of the big stars of the night, Brian “Gene” Simmons stepped up from off the bench and applied such a presence at the net that Irvine found themselves tied with the Trojans midway through the final set, 8-8.

Unlike the previous four sets, the fifth set is played to 15 and must be won by two points. This meant that each team only had a limited amount of room to make an error, making it imperative that each team stay within their system of attack.

As the match unfolded into the last points, it became clear that there was nothing the Trojans could do to stop this Anteater team from winning.

At 11-14 in favor of the Anteaters, sophomore Jordan DuFault shot a kill in between the outstretched arms of the Trojan defense. The outstretched arms came up short. The ball landed and the Anteaters won the match, 15-11.

This was the team’s second title in three years and its third trip to the Final Four in four years.

This was also a night to remember for the five seniors that can now recall their last match in an Irvine jersey as the best win of their lives.

“To hear [Ammerman] talk about family was just a really emotional moment for me,” Speraw said. “This was a huge collective of leadership throughout the season and tonight it all came together. It was amazing to watch.”

The collective effort was clear by how much emotional impact each player had on the team, but the stats showed more of this than anything. Wilson had a team-high 21 kills, four digs and an ace. Clark finished with 15 kills, nine digs and DuFault followed him with 11 kills. Simmons had a remarkable four kills and seven block assists in just two sets of playing. But it was Ammerman that stole the show. He finished with 55 set assists, six kills, five digs and 12 block assists.

“Watching Ryan improve over the course of this season has been the single greatest amount of improvement by one player that I have seen in all my years of coaching,” Speraw said.

But the path to this championship was not at all what the team had anticipated. After its loss to USC in the MPSF semifinals, UCI received the at-large bid to go to the championships and had a rough start. The team faced a mediocre Ohio State University team and played fairly poorly. Luckily, the Anteaters’ poor playing was still enough for them to sweep the Buckeyes in that semifinal match.

The match against Ohio was more of a moment to work the kinks out before they faced a rolling USC squad in the championship match.

The rest was history.

The UCI men’s volleyball team told the New University before its first preseason match in January that they were going to win the National Title and to the delight of the Irvine faithful that made the drive or flight out to Utah, it did.