John Speraw likes to study coaches. In particular, the head coach of the UCI men’s volleyball team likes to read up on how coaching greats turn teams into champions. If the Anteaters keep winning like they did this season, however, coaches soon will be studying Speraw.
After winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season title, Speraw’s Anteaters participated in the NCAA Championship for the first time in program history. UCI faced fourth-seeded Penn State May 4 in the second semifinal match at Penn State University but, after a hard-fought battle to the finish, were defeated in the fifth game. Still, during the course of its best season on record, men’s volleyball had scored an unprecedented 21-game winning streak and achieved No. 1 national ranking.
“At the start of the season, we had a choice: Is our emphasis going to be on winning or on effort?” Speraw says. “We’ve focused on effort, and we’ve been able to deliver. The wins came as a byproduct.”
Talk about a turnaround: UCI was 27-5 overall this season compared to 9-20 in 2005 – a remarkable improvement. The Anteaters’ previous conference best was fifth in 2003. Speraw calls this winning season “the culmination of a lot of things.”
“Last year we were really, really young, but we learned a lot,” he says. “We’ve determined what our strengths are – we’re not big, so we’ll dig more balls. We’re better at passing, setting and defense.
Changes in training also have led to many firsts – and many broken records – for the team. Their perfect regular season record at home – 16-0 – is a school first.
Another first: UCI swept the MPSF postseason awards. Speraw was named Coach of the Year, outside hitter Jason Jablonsky was Player of the Year, and Brent Asuka was Newcomer of the Year – the first UCI players to receive those titles. (Charlie Brande, head coach of UCI’s women’s volleyball team, was MPSF Coach of the Year in 1999.)
Speraw came to UCI four years ago from UCLA, where he was assistant to Al Scates, the legendary volleyball coach who has led the Bruins to 18 national championships. (While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and molecular genetics, Speraw played middle blocker for the Bruins from 1990-95 and was a member of two national championship teams, in 1993 and 1995.)
“I watched what Al Scates did and tried to observe what made his teams successful,” Speraw says.
Good thing Speraw took notes.