Climbing The Ranks

Sophia Chang/New University

Hours before many UC Irvine students drag themselves out of bed and stumble to class, Anthony Spittle and the rest of the men’s volleyball team is up and in the gym practicing. At 8 a.m., they’re training in the weight room. After a day of classes, they return to Crawford Court for leadership classes with Head Coach John Speraw where they meditate, learn how to manage stress and journal, among other things, until practice starts at 5:30 p.m.

The hours they dedicate to their team have paid off. As they head to the playoffs, they’re ranked No. 3 in the nation and have clinched the fourth seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs.

Anthony Spittle is the third, last and youngest of the Spittle brothers to play for UCI. As a fifth-year social ecology major, he has already finished classes. This quarter, instead of juggling school and volleyball, his energy has been spent focusing on finishing the regular season, preparing for the postseason and figuring out the future that lies ahead of him after UCI.

Spittle started playing volleyball at a very young age. In addition to his volleyball-playing older brothers, his father also played in high school. Together, the Spittle men paired off to play two-on-two games in their backyard at any given opportunity.

In 2003, the same year John Speraw was named head coach, Spittle’s oldest brother Paul joined the team as an outside hitter.  Before 2003-2004, UCI’s team hadn’t seen a winning season since ’98-’99. Speraw turned the team around and led them through the best season in school history, with a 20-11 record. With the team standing on a brand new foundation, Spittle’s brother Nick joined the team as well in 2005, playing libero.

Meanwhile, Spittle played setter at Redondo Union High School where he earned recognition — he was named most outstanding player at his high school twice, an all-league honoree three times, All-CIF choice twice and snagged a spot on Volleyball Magazine’s “Fab 50” in 2006.

By the time college recruitment rolled around, Spittle was a member of the second-best recruiting class in the nation. He admits choosing UCI because of his brothers. He had the chance to hang out with the team throughout the years and got to see the team’s progress and the coaches firsthand.

“I had come here and hung out with my brothers and was able to see how they lived and what the college experience was like,” Spittle said. “I knew that they had the best coaches in the country. It was a simple decision.”

Though Spittle redshirted his freshman year, the 2006-2007 season was the first time UCI earned the right to call themselves champions. On June 18, 2007, the team was honored at the White House — a picture of the team with former President George Bush clutching an anteater plushie remains as evidence.

The team won the national championship again in 2009, beating USC in Provo, Utah.  Although he was active, Spittle didn’t get to play much. He’d been in and out of the matches throughout the years, but always had great setters ahead of him who took the starting positions. That year, senior setter Ryan Ammerman was named Most Outstanding Player of the national title game.

This season, as the starting setter, Spittle is staring in the face of the team’s sixth consecutive postseason berth. The team ended their regular season on a six-game winning streak with a 3-0 win over No. 11 UC San Diego. What lies ahead of them is fifth-seeded Hawaii on April 23, but the team is staying focused on one match at a time.

“Every year we say one point at a time, one game at a time,” Spittle said. “But we are still thinking about playoffs, we have to keep the big picture in mind …  We’re still working on the things we need to work on … a lot of [teams] try not to overwork their guys, but we still have a lot of work to do to be the best team in the nation.”

Even with the team’s consistent success, it seems the real heart of the team can be found off the court. More so than just being teammates, they’re a close-knit family. Spittle and many of his teammates live in Newport Beach and spend their off-time together barbequing, surfing and playing beach volleyball — as if they don’t play volleyball often enough. If anyone were to question the motivations of anyone in the program, they would be met with the same resounding response: these Anteaters play because volleyball is fun and because they like it.

The good feelings on the team start from above, too. Their coaches lead them with positivity; their energy and dedication to the team is palpable.  In fact, Speraw, assistant coaches David Kniffin and Mark Presho are a big part in why players decide to call UCI their home.

“Our whole coaching staff is phenomenal and they dedicate a lot of time and energy into our program,” Spittle said. “You can see the dedication to the program and the school, they want to make a good name for the school and volleyball,” Spittle said.

As a player, Spittle is an extremely hard worker, characterized by determination and persistence. As a person, he’s humble and down-to-earth. When asked questions that are directly about himself, he answers quietly and to the point. When asked about the team and his coaches, he lights up. He is a team player through and through, and on the court he is dedicated to giving his all. His successes are the result of hard work and the support of the players and coaches who guide him. His weaknesses are things to be worked through, not shortfalls.

He may be the last Anteater amongst the Spittles, but his family extends past bloodlines.  He is clearly a member of a much larger brotherhood, one that he and his older brothers are vital members of  — the UCI men’s volleyball team.