The UC Irvine men’s volleyball team – winners of the NCAA National Championship, the MPSF conference title and four All American awards – had one more reason to be proud Wednesday as they basked in an outpouring of support from the Anteater community.
Joined by Chancellor Michael V. Drake and Executive Vice Chancellor Michael R. Gottfredson, about 200 supporters gathered with the volleyball team in front of Aldrich Hall to officially celebrate the team’s championship win May 5.
Head Coach John Speraw is no stranger to winning; he played on two national championship teams and was an assistant coach for two more during his tenure at UCLA. But he said the support during this year’s run to a 29-5 record and the team’s first national title surprised him.
“I’m usually not at a loss for words, but this is just wonderful,” Speraw said after he and his team rolled into the celebration on OCTA buses featuring a salute on the back that read: “Orange County is Anteater Territory.
“I was fortunate enough to win titles in the past,” Speraw said, “but I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is tremendous.”
Anteater fans said they had never seen anything like this year’s volleyball team before.
“This is a team that does not quit,” Gottfredson said. “I don’t know if it was a part of Coach Speraw’s strategy – to lose the first two games and come back – to get the players back on their heels and start thinking. But this team never quit, and by never quitting, they came out on top. That’s a terrific lesson for all of us.”
Indeed, the team didn’t take the easy road to the NCAA tournament. In the three consecutive conference playoff matches, Speraw and company staved off elimination by winning against perennial powerhouses Hawaii, Brigham Young and Pepperdine after trailing 0-2 in each contest.
“When were down 0-2 against Hawaii in the first round, I was wondering if we were going to pull it off,” Speraw admitted. “But from 19-19 all against Hawaii in the third game, we played great volleyball.”
He said he’s enjoying the e-mails and phone calls of congratulations, including one that that his caller I.D. recorded as simply “202.”
“It was the White House,” he said with a grin. The team is invited to meet President George Bush on June 18.
Earlier Wednesday, Speraw spoke to the University Club Forum on campus about value-driven success and explained that his third year as coach, with a 9-20 record, was the year he developed his coaching philosophy. He wanted to coach teams that play with intelligence and stress effort, responsibility, respect and a feeling of family.
“I’ve appreciated the chance to be here and learn this,” he said. “And I’ve learned from the team.”
During Wednesday’s rally, senior setter Brian Thornton presented Gottfredson and Drake with volleyballs signed by the entire squad. Drake, to the delight of the crowd, took off his suit coat, slipped the official championship T-shirt over his dress shirt and tie, and topped it off with the championship baseball cap.
“One of the great things about the University of California, Irvine is that we have really high standards for academic achievement,” Drake said. “To also achieve at the highest levels of athletic competition is a double whammy, and we couldn’t be prouder of our athletes.”
Next year’s NCAA championships will be held at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center, and there is a chance seats could be filled with Anteater fans. With the team’s core of senior All Americans – Jason Jablonsky, Brian Thornton, David Smith and Matt Webber – all graduating, what are the chances of a repeat?
“We were celebrating that night we won,” Speraw said, “and a group of guys that are sophomores and juniors came up to me and said, ‘We want to do this again, can we come into the gym on Monday?’
“I don’t think our hunger is going to diminish.”