Q&A with UC Irvine at the men’s volleyball NCAA Tournament

UC Irvine coach John Speraw and several Anteater players participated in the men’s volleyball NCAA Tournament media day on Wednesday.

The No. 1 seed UC Irvine will play the No. 4 seed Penn State in the semifinals on Thursday. Check out the transcript from UC Irvine’s news conference.


John Speraw, UC Irvine coach: We are coming off some great practices. We are healthy and extremely excited to be here and are looking forward to a couple five-game matches. Hopefully they wonʼt involve us going down 0-2. If they do, so be it, weʼll just keep playing volleyball.

Q: Thoughts on Penn State’s serving as a strength?

JS: It appears that way to me looking at the stats. I havenʼt watched enough video to get a complete feel. I will by game time tomorrow. Not only how we are able to pass (will be key) but how we attack out of system because theyʼll inevitably get us out system. It seems like every single guy can go back there and score points for them. The big challenge in the match is that we havenʼt played them yet. Weʼve done a really good job by adjusting to teams that we know. This match, the challenge will be how to adapt for playing a team for the first time. How we learn early and how we get better as the match progresses.

Q: Thoughts on UC Irvine’s two five-game comeback victories in the MPSF Tournament?

JS: When we went down vs. Stanford, I wondered about the emotional fortitude. To come back and be down 0-2 and win a second match a night later is remarkable to me as a coach. Iʼve never been a part of anything like that. I was impressed to see how strong we were in that moment and I looked out on the court and I saw the same thing that I saw against USC. That it was just business. We didnʼt look flustered or in a position that we were worried about the outcome. I was incredibly gratified to see our team compete like that.

Q: Can you comment on Kevin Tillie’s route to UC Irvine

JS: :It was pretty out of the blue. I had heard rumors a couple years before about this French kid going to BYU but it never materialized and I never thought much about it until I got this email from a French player. This player said he was better than (he) was at the same age and the player sending the email was a really good player. I was immediately interested and sent an email back. His dad got in touch with me. I got some video, but we were in the middle of the season so the video sat on my computer for a couple weeks. We were at Penn State and it was snowing and there was nothing to do after the match. At the hotel, I opened the video and took a look at a few swings and I told my assistant coach to look. We get lots of video, but itʼs a rare day when you get a video and think itʼs someone weʼre really interested in. My coach said, ʻwhat are you going to do?ʼ and I said ʻweʼre all in on this.ʼ At this point, I knew BYU was interested and shortly thereafter USC and UCLA was interested. At that point, we did all we could do to get Kevin to join us.

Q: Thoughts on Penn State’s All-American outside attacker Joe Sunder?

JS: Heʼs a very good player. Physically, he does some really impressive things. When everything lines up and he gets a good set and a good approach, heʼs going to hit the ball at an incredibly high point, higher than anyone in this league. We talk about it, but when we get on the court and they watch him hit the ball, it will be an eye-opening experience. He plays at a higher level than anyone else in our league. And they need to understand heʼs going to get his kills. We can do everything exactly how we want to do it and heʼs going to get his kills and we need to move on from that.

Q: Thoughts on the quality of Midwest and East volleyball?

JS: I think years ago, people may have had a perception that Midwest or East Coast volleyball wasnʼt as good. In 1994 I was on the team that lost to Penn State when it won its first title. I think we were probably pretty arrogant at the time. It taught us a good lesson. Weʼve had great run-ins with Penn State. Ohio State won last year. The perception maybe from the media or the casual fan is that the best volleyball is played on the West Coast. But everyone in volleyball knows that itʼs played nationwide. Even the Olympic team I was a part of, most of the guys were not from California. I donʼt think thereʼs any worry that weʼre going into the match thinking that we have a lighter opponent.

Q: Thoughts on if the volleyball is different in different spots in the country?

JS: I donʼt think so. These guys play on junior teams together and there is continuity on those teams. And thereʼs a lot of crossover on teams. Everyone is coming out of the same junior programs. Every program has its own systems, but I donʼt think itʼs regionalized.

Q: Can you talk about UCLA head coaching opening, which been rumored to be a front-runner for?

JS: Iʼve not given it an ounce of thought in three weeks. People have been asking me this for 10 years. Iʼve been answering it for 10 years and will have to do it for a couple more months. But Iʼm just focusing on these two matches.

Q: What makes Penn State volleyball successful?

Carson Clark, outside attacker: This summer I trained with a few of the guys, including Joe, and I can honestly say heʼs one of the best big hitters Iʼve seen. Heʼs really impressive and his block is something weʼll have to watch out for. Theyʼre always really good and will handle their stuff. Theyʼve been here a lot and always talented.

Q: Thoughts on the Final Four environment?

CC: It was a really good experience for me (in ʼ09). At the same time I think we have a cool little spark because a lot of the guys havenʼt been here. Itʼs a lot of fire and excitement about never having been here before. We want to make this one count. A lot of the guys are fired up.

Q: Can you comment on the mentality of getting to the Final Four?

Dan McDonnell, middle attacker: It started in the conference tournament when itʼs win or go home. We took that mentality, especially against UCLA.

Q: Is the awareness of volleyball growing up in Arizona?

DM: I had zero awareness of college volleyball growing up. In Arizona, boys volleyball is not a sport respected a lot. I didnʼt know about club volleyball. I spread my talent around a bunch of sports until I found volleyball my sophomore year of volleyball.

Q: How did you found your way to UCI via France?

Kevin Tillie, outside attacker: Itʼs kind of lucky I guess. I was in France and wanted to go to the U.S. I had some problems with grades transferring so I went to Canada. After two years there, I tried the experience again. My dad is a coach in France and some player he had knew a coach in the United States so he gave him my email and it ended up being John Speraw. It was kind of lucky and I ended up committing to Irvine.

Transcript courtesy of USC Sports Information