The last time UC Irvine stepped onto the volleyball court, the coaching staff wore blue button-up shirts with black slacks and sport coats, highlighting the significance of the team traveling forty miles north to USC’s Galen Center. And the last time the ’Eaters stepped off the court, their heads hung low, their eyes staring at the floor as they despondently untucked their jerseys while the Trojans pranced around in the background, celebrating their victory.
For UCI, nothing was more disappointing than letting an opportunity to take down the No. 1 team in country and earn a spot to play in the MPSF championship game slip through their hands.
If head coach John Speraw and company hope to win their last game in the 2012 season and avoid another heartbreaking exit from the playoffs this year, they will need to take a page out of Winston Churchill’s book: “Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it.”
The 2012 Anteaters open up their season in similar fashion to last year’s team: they are ranked second in the MPSF and have a season-opening match against NAIA opponent Cal Baptist.
But that is where the similarities end. The ’Eaters will no longer have the services of Anthony Spittle, Kevin Wynne, Jordan DuFault and Cory Yoder. Not only will Speraw need to rely on some underclassmen to replace these cornerstone players, but the 10-year coach will also need to depend on a new assistant coach, Andrea Becker, who is replacing a pillar of UC Irvine’s success in David Kniffin.
Although there will be fresh faces in the starting line-up and new ones among the coaching staff, the Anteaters still have one constant — Carson Clark. The fifth-year senior will enter the season as the undisputed leader as he is one of three players left on the roster who last played in the 2009 championship game. But Clark offers more than leadership. He is the workhorse who can shift momentum to the ’Eaters’ side with one swing of his arm, and as he goes so does the rest of the team.
Clark cannot do it alone though, and standing on his opposite side will be the 6-foot-4 Jeremy Dejno. In his first season, the Wisconsin native hit .225, recorded 100 kills and fired 22 aces, five of which came against UCLA on March 30. More importantly, the sophomore outside hitter showed flashes that he could jump just as high, hit just as hard and provide a spark just as big as Clark’s. Not to be overlooked at the outside hitter position will be fifth-year senior Kevin Carroll, whose versatility will play an important role on this year’s team as he can play middle blocker, and redshirt sophomore Connor Hughes, who showed flashes of brilliance during his freshman season two years ago.
But Clark’s success, along with the rest of team’s, will hinge on the fingers of Daniel Stork. The sophomore setter will be quarterbacking the team this year and will look to provide something that the ’Eaters have not had since they last won the title — consistent and solid setting. In his freshman season, Stork played sparingly as Spittle’s backup, appearing in 22 sets, dishing out 230 assists and recording 142 digs. Although his inexperience did get the best of him sometimes, Stork did show that he could be a crucial piece to Irvine’s championship puzzle. If Clark has a monster season and the Anteaters make a deep run in the postseason, credit will have to given to the sophomore.
Equally as important will be the play of UCI’s middle blockers. Last year, when the team struggled so did the middle blockers, who failed to plug the holes and left the black line exposed. But when the ’Eaters went on their seven-game winning streak the front line stymied the opposition’s kill attempts on a consistent basis.
Seniors Dan McDonnell and Austin D’Amore, who missed the majority of last season because of an ankle injury, and sophomore Scott Kevorken proved that they could form a formidable defensive wall that compliments UCI’s great offense. But the challenge for the trio will be providing great defense on a game-to-game basis. And if these players struggle, Speraw can insert the aforementioned Carroll to clog the lanes, with sophomore Colin Mehring also vying for playing time.
Last year’s five-set defeat to Cal Baptist may have foreshadowed a tough year for the ’Eaters, but this year’s trouncing of the Lancers may bode well for the team. Carroll led the sweep for the Anteaters 25-20, 25-18, 25-21, leading all players with 11 kills, while Stork led the team with 34 helpers. Although the offense sputtered at times, hitting .248, UCI’s defense held the Lancers to a .133 hitting percentage.
After notching their first win of the season, the road did not get any easier for the ’Eaters as they made their annual pilgrimage to Santa Barbara to participate in the UCSB Tournament, where their opening match was against the No. 1-ranked BYU Cougars. However, the Anteaters made a statement at the tournament by finishing with three straight victories, a sure sign as to how well UCI could perform this season.
BYU’s No. 1 ranking meant nothing to the Anteaters. Led by Dejno (18 kills), Clark (14) and Stork (53 assists), UCI stunned the Cougars in four sets 21-25, 25-19, 25-17, 25-23. Irvine will have to show that this win was no fluke as the Cougars come to the Bren this Friday, Jan. 13 and Saturday, Jan. 14.
In the second round the tournament, UCI faced hated rival Long Beach State. After digging themselves in a 2-0 hole, the Anteaters responded by taking the third and fourth sets and forced an all-important fifth and final set.
In the past two years, UCI’s Achilles heel had been the dreaded fifth set. But this year may signal a changing of the guard for the Anteaters. UCI showed their mental toughness and battled through last set of the match, taking the game in five sets. Clark and Dejno proved to be game changers as they finished the match with 24 and 23 kills respectively.
The Anteaters finished off the tournament with a 3-1 thrashing of UCLA. Despite losing a close first set at 25-23, UCI battled through to take the next two 25-21 and 35-33 before taking the fourth set in dominant fashion at 25-18.Carson Clark stepped up as the leader and finished with 17 kills, 10 digs, and five block assists. Dejno followed suit with 16 kills and averaged a whopping 4.38 kills per set. The Anteaters out-hit UCLA .343 to .242, a sure sign that their offense anything but a weakness.
UCI will put their undefeated record in jeopardy at 7 p.m. against top-ranked BYU on Friday and Saturday at the Bren.