The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team, NCAA national champions in two of the past three years, is moving on to challenge the world. The Bren Events Center will host the UC Irvine World Volleyball Challenge on Oct 9-10, an unprecedented international tournament at an American university.
Coming to UCI will be Drean Bolivar, Argentine Super League champions the last three years, HvA, an under-23 Dutch Federation team and Air Jumbos, a professional team from Korea.
Last September, the Anteaters traveled to Argentina, where Drean Bolivar hosted the 2008 World Challenge: Club Volleyball Cup. This year, UCI will return the favor by hosting the tournament – the first of its type on American soil.
“We were both contemplating the concept while we were on a long bus ride last year down in Argentina,” Head Coach, John Speraw, said. “We started chatting about how neat it would be to have a tournament like the world challenge here in Irvine … how little volleyball fans in the US have been able to watch professional volleyball, and what a great experience the opportunity to play against teams of that level would be for our guys.”
Both Coach Speraw and Assistant Coach David Kniffin credited last year’s experience in Argentina as invaluable to the championship run during UCI’s regular season play. This year, UCI hopes to showcase the high level of play to a packed house at the Bren Events Center.
“It’d be great to come to this event because you’re going to see some of the best volleyball players in the world compete,” Speraw said. “You’re going to see a lot of national team players from Argentina and Korea, a lot of the young, future International guys from Holland. There’s even a national team member from Bulgaria who’s competing for the Korean team.”
However, fans used to seeing UCI dominate the home court may be in for a surprise. Last year, UCI was only able to take a couple sets total off of their international opponents.
“The playing level is going to very, very high. I’m not sure UC Irvine is going to be able to beat any of these teams,” Speraw said. “I don’t know that, but I have a pretty good idea. The level of the volleyball is going to be better than what the typical American fan has ever seen.”
UCI administration, both in athletic and academic departments, have been extremely supportive and instrumental in setting up the tournament.
“We have an incredibly supportive administrative staff,” Speraw said. “I think there are universities who wouldn’t be able to pull this off because their admin is so distracted with football or other major sports, but here, they understand that volleyball has the potential to continue to get better, and they’re supportive of our mission to innovate and improve our program, and they want to help us facilitate that.”
In terms of frontline connections with the teams, Assistant Coach Kniffin, who played professionally overseas in Spain and is fluent in Spanish, has been imperative.
“This tournament has everything to do with David’s efforts and his passion to make this event occur,” Speraw said. “I think our entire program and athletic department owes David a debt of gratitude.”
In addition to the impressive play on the court, some impressive names will be pacing the sidelines as well. Bolivar head coach, Javier Weber, is the head coach of the Argentine National Team, and played for Argentina in the Olympics in 1988, 1996 and 2000. Holland head coach Ron Zwerver played in three consecutive Olympics starting in 1988, including a gold medal in Atlanta, 1996. Both coaches are excited to be here.
“This tournament is very important to us because it is before our championship league play, and the preparation is very good,” Weber said. “Of course, we want to win.”
For Holland, with a junior team of guys mostly 22 and 23, the equivalent of 5th years in the U.S, it offers a chance to play against fellow younger players at their level, since the team consists of all the best young players in Holland.
“They want to play against guys that are also in their early 20s,” Zwerver said. “The competition in Holland is not at a high level, so if they win their matches they think they’re great. But they have to look further. They have to deal with the nine-hour jet lag; they have to know what international competition is. Playing against these teams will be an international benchmark for them.”
On the other hand, UCI players will look to catch a glimpse of a potential future career: playing professionally overseas. Several ex-Anteaters have done so, most recently setter Ryan Ammerman, of the 2009 championship team.
“We want to encourage interaction and opportunities not only for our players to go abroad, but for players to come here and experience what we have to offer not only on the national and Olympic level, but on the collegiate level as well,” Kniffin said. “The opportunity to expose [UCI players] to potential teams and opportunities abroad is in the forefront of all of [the players’] minds.”
Pool play will begin on Monday the 5th to determine the seeding. These matches will be closed to the public to concentrate the attendance on the semi-final and finals games on Friday and Saturday. The US “B” team and the Canadian national team will also participate, as practice for the teams. However, neither is officially in the tournament as they had prior engagements to attend during the final rounds. Tickets will only be $5 for UCI students, $15 for regular admission single-session and $25 for an all-session pass.
“I think the environment is going to be fun, we’ve tried very hard to advertise in the Korean and Argentine communities, and we’re hopeful that the Koreans and Argentineans come out and bang on their drums and do all the kinds of things that make an international event so much fun,” Speraw said. “We’d love for everyone to come out and check out our new team. I think we can be really good by the end of the year. We’d love to see a packed house.”
Coach John Speraw on the Opponents
– “Drean Bolivar is possibly the best team in South America. They have 5 starters off their national team, and the national team coach. They’re not real big, but they just do a nice job of playing the game and I would expect them in the finals. They’ve won the Argentinian league 5 of the last 6 years.”
– “Holland sticks all their best players in one university. It’d be like taking every single All-American and sticking them in UC Irvine to train. So they’re going ot be exceptional, and they’re going to be big.”
– “Air Jumbos (Korea) is going to be a ball control team. Couple players off their national team and one player off the Bulgarian national team. He had his way with the US team that 6 weeks later won the gold medal in 2008. So I’m guessing he’s going to be very good against a bunch of collegiate guys.” – “Drean Bolivar is possibly the best team in South America. They have 5 starters off their national team, and the national team coach. They’re not real big, but they just do a nice job of playing the game and I would expect them in the finals. They’ve won the Argentinian league 5 of the last 6 years.”