Head Coach John Speraw and company have placed the past season of what could have been in the rear-view mirror and now look to prove that Irvine is indeed the Mecca of the collegiate volleyball world.
“I think we are going to be better at some phases of the game. Our setting is going to be better. I think we are in a position to set better, to serve better and to pass better. I think our libero position will be better,” Speraw said. “I am cautiously optimistic. Throughout the fall, I saw individual pieces to the puzzles become better, but I don’t think we put them all together.”
The Anteaters return all seven starters from a team that toppled four schools ranked in the nation’s top five, including then No. 1 Cal State Northridge. However, this same team struggled to close out opponents, losing nine five-set matches.
Junior Carson Clark and senior Jordan DuFault, UC Irvine’s All-Americans, head the 2011 squad. Last season, Clark led the team and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation with 50 aces. The junior opposite recorded 20 or more kills in 17 matches. DuFault finished second on the team with 465 kills and 26 service aces. These two offensive standouts will shoulder much of the team’s success as well as leadership responsibilities.
Last season, the ’Eaters depended on setting by committee as Jeff Schmitz, Anthony Spittle and Ian Wynne failed to establish themselves as clear-cut starters. Spittle, who played in the most sets last season, will command the reins of the team as he opens up the season as the starting setter. If the Anteaters expect to vie for a national championship, the senior setter will need to play bigger than his 6-foot-1-inch frame indicates.
“Anthony [Spittle] has improved quite a bit,” Speraw said. “He worked really hard this off-season.”
Daniel Stork, a freshman from Topanga, CA, will also be pushing for playing time at the setter position. Stork made his presence felt in October when he dished out 62 assists in UC Irvine’s victory over China in the International Volleyball Tournament.
In 2010, the Anteaters lost nine five-set matches that could have easily gone in their favor. Much of the blame can be placed on the ’Eaters’ poor service in crucial moments of the game. UCI made a habit of serving balls into the net or firing them out of bounds. Heading into the 2011 season, UCI should be much improved from the service line.
“We have the potential to score more points from the service line,” Speraw said. “Austin D’Amore, who has a great arm, has improved his serving quite a bit. Carson [Clark] has improved his serve quite a bit. The addition of Jeremy Dejno gives us a scoring threat that we haven’t had in sometime. We are bringing more velocity. Whether or not we bring more accuracy, we will have to wait.”
Dejno, a Wisconsin native, showcased his talents in the International Volleyball Tournament as well. The freshman outside hitter displayed his ability to strike the ball against the Chinese Team as he led UCI with a .750 hitting percentage and 26 kills.
On many occasions last season, the Anteaters remained exposed to the opposing teams, which were able to exploit holes UCI’s defense. This year, the Anteaters load up on defense. Junior outside hitter Kevin Carroll will patrol the net with his tremendous blocking ability.
“Our blocking is going to be better,” Speraw said. “A guy like Kevin Carroll is improved after last year. He is an unbelievable blocker.”
UCI also adds much-needed depth at the middle blocker position. Last season, teams feasted on UCI’s lack of middle blockers, as Speraw could only count on D’Amore and senior Kevin Wynne. This year, the Anteaters add Dan McDonnell, who missed all of 2010 with an injury, and Scott Kevorken, who redshirted last season.
The ’Eaters improvement at the setter position, the service line, defense and their added depth has earned them a No. 1 ranking in the MPSF Preseason Poll. Despite their ranking, Coach Speraw feels that his team has a big vulnerability.
“We are preseason No. 1 but I think we are potentially a lot younger than most people realize,” Speraw said. “I don’t think we are No. 1, but if our young guys can learn quickly, improve like we hope, maybe we have a chance to compete at the end.”
UCI’s quest to reclaim the top spot in the nation will not be easy. They share No. 1 ranking with the Men of Troy, whom the ’Eaters host on Jan. 19. The match between the top two teams in the MPSF should be a barnburner, as the last three matches have gone into a fifth set.
UC Irvine will not only have to contend with USC, but also the rest of the conference. Aside from USC and UCI claiming the top spot, four other schools also received a vote for the No. 1 ranking in the MPSF. This includes the Stanford Cardinals, who won the national championship last season.
“USC is going to be good. They were my vote for No. 1. Hawaii beat us twice in their place last year. They have a good team. BYU is always tough. They are going to be outstanding this year,” Speraw said. “But I’m thinking about Cal Baptist, our first match. I want our guys to be thinking about Cal Baptist.”
The Anteaters will travel to Riverside on Jan. 5 to open up the season against the Lancers of Cal Baptist. The ’Eaters’ home opener will be on Jan. 12 as they host UC San Diego.