UCI Wins, USC Loses. The Birth of A Great Volleyball Rivalry

UC Irvine and the University of Southern California faced off last weekend in Provo, UT for the national championship. No matter what the result, get used to seeing these two programs squaring off against each other for some time to come.

UCI and USC are the future of NCAA men’s volleyball, and the future is now.

UCI made the first great move when it hired Coach John Speraw to head the program seven years ago. Speraw had a five-year plan to build a downtrodden program into a champion and he delivered. He took a 9-20 team from 2005 and turned it into a 29-7 national champion in 2007. After graduating a core senior class that anchored the team in 2007, the 2008 team showed weakness but with bright flashes of talent. That talent translated into where UCI is now today. Better yet, with the surplus of young talent on the Anteater bench, UCI should contend for the national title every year for years to come.

In Los Angeles, USC made an excellent decision in hiring Coach Bill Ferguson three years ago, and in just three years, he had the Trojans grinding into a national championship, their first appearance since 1991. The Trojans’ success is a testament to Ferguson’s hard work.

“They have gone out and recruited very, very well … They are working very hard. I could tell that immediately. I am always the first guy to call a recruit every year. That first year [Ferguson] took over, I was the second one. They were so fired up. I knew that we were going to have a lot to deal with,” Coach Speraw said.

Ferguson made a change in the line-up at the end of this season that propelled USC to the most dangerous team in the nation when he moved Murphy Troy from opposite to outside hitter. This move made USC balanced and a threat on any play.

Speraw and Ferguson’s paths have intertwined often in the past. They both coached together in the 2000 Junior Olympics and were even roommates in Lake Placid. Speraw also helped Coach Ferguson’s club team, and he even used Ferguson as a reference in his application for the UCI head coach position.

“From the outside, we are complete polar opposites,” Coach Ferguson said of Speraw. “He’s in shape, a good-looking dude. I am a little chubbier, I got hair. I am a little more animated. He looks more like a scientist out there. Two different guys going after the same thing. But we are close friends, and he was at my wedding.”

With an appearance in the Final Four and the USC brand name, Ferguson has become potent on the recruiting end. He is threatening what Coach Speraw has established already; UCI as a powerhouse volleyball program.

Coach Speraw isn’t discouraged however. He believes UCI can be marketed as well in Southern California, particularly Orange County. UCI is being recognized as a top school to kids growing up playing volleyball, and UCI has been competing and winning in the recruiting race with schools like USC, UCLA and Stanford. Speraw won Mountain Pacific Sports Federation first-team member and Freshman of the Year Carson Clark over USC just two years ago.

Nevertheless, these two programs are doing everything right. They both have young talent that is growing up quickly. Coach Speraw believes that next year’s road to the Final Four will be a toss-up. Many schools are coming back stronger and much more experienced. However in two years, all of the schools, except USC and UCI, will graduate a significant number of contributors. Thus, leaving USC and UCI as the front-runners again in 2011.

Moreover, this year gave birth to the UCI-USC rivalry. After defeating USC three times in the regular season, and eight more times consecutively before that, USC finally beat UCI in the MPSF Tournament semifinal two weeks ago. Not only did they beat UCI, but also crushed them at the Bren. Words were exchanged across the net, and even beef was cooked between the fans. A national title match between the two teams was the icing on the rivalry cake.

The talent competition is like Kobe vs. LeBron, but the hatred is like Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.

With UCI coming on top in one of the greatest college volleyball finals in history, we have the edge right now. However, the show has just begun.