Regardless of UC Irvine’s seed in the conference tournament, coach John Speraw already knows one thing: his team is capable of winning the MPSF championship.
No. 4 UC Irvine is 11-4 in the last two months and is on a four match winning streak, including a road victory against No. 5 Long Beach State on Wednesday. In addition, the Anteaters (16-11, 12-8 MPSF) clinched a spot in the eight-team conference tournament and are in fourth place in the MPSF.
If UC Irvine wins its final two matches it will be guaranteed the No. 4 seed in the MPSF Tournament and get home match in the quarterfinals. The chance to host a postseason match is a big accomplish, Speraw said, after the coach worried about the team just making the postseason when it started the first month of the season 4-6.
Off the Block conducted an interview with Speraw on Wednesday to discuss the Anteaters’ recent success and the potential of the team making a run in the conference tournament to return to the Final Four.
Off the Block: Coach you have two matches left before the start of the MPSF Tournament. What your thoughts on how your team playing down the final stretch of the season?
John Speraw: I feel good. We have been playing good volleyball the last six to seven weeks. I think we had one bad loss a couple weeks ago to UCLA, and we beat them last week and played well versus USC in a loss. We are in good position to get the No. 4 seed. We got two tough matches left. Cal State Northridge and UC San Diego do not have the best records this year, but we know that we need to play tough, good volleyball to beat them.
OTB: How important is it for your team to get that No. 4 seed and host a first round match in the MPSF Tournament?
JS: I think it is important. Starting off season so shaky, I’m excited to be in a position to do that. The truth is it’s a battle and at the end of the day I think we have a good chance to host. Earlier I was thinking just get into the playoffs. We have quite a bit of depth this year, and it’s been a fun season for spectators. Lots of funny things happen in the playoffs. I’m excited to host or the possibility to host. End of the day, though, I’ll play anybody anywhere, and we’ll see what happens.
OTB: Speaking about some of your team’s struggles at the start of the year, what was the turning point of the season?
JS: I’m not sure if there was one match or moment where all of a sudden it clicked. I think it was more gradual and in general making a commitment to improving every day and not getting frustrated with the early season struggles. We also had to figure out our lineup. We have great depth on this team and part of the process was figuring out who was going to be on the court. The second part of that process was accessing our strengths and weaknesses. This is a different team from the teams that won championships and we had to learn how to train differently and better use the strengths of this team. That learning was not just the players, but learning for the coaches and staff.
OTB: What makes this team different from your teams that won championships in the past?
JS:K It’s in terms of personnel and because of that we have some different strengths and weaknesses. [At setter it’s] going from Ryan Ammerman who’s 6-foot-9-inches and a great blocker to Anthony Spittle who is a little bit smaller and not going to get the same block. We have had to figure that out. … I think we have been able to adapt and do those things as the season progressed.
OTB: Do you feel this team can make a run and win the conference tournament?
JS: I feel that way. I feel pretty strongly about it, but it’s nothing you can take for granted. … There is a lot of depth and talent in the league. I think anyone can beat anyone. You hear that a lot in sports, but I really believe it’s true in our league and conference. There are favorites. We see the favored team not win all the time. I think that can happen this year. We have really pushed our team this year. I’m excited for it. All the players ready to go.
OTB: In looking at one player in particular, outside attacker Carson Clark is in the nation’s top five in kills per game average. What has he meant to your team this year both on offense and just his presence on the court?
JS: Carson means quite a bit to the success of the team. He’s got a great arm and offensively he puts a lot of pressure on the other team. This season he’s really improved his range. He use to be pattern hitter, and this year he’s been able to mix up.
OTB: Clark in your win against Long Beach State struggled with 16 kills and a .063 attack percentage. Was he just having an off night or did Long Beach State do something that you think other teams might try to implement against him the rest of the season?
JS: Carson played somewhat poorly last night. During the match I said he didn’t look like himself, and an assistant coach turned and told me he was sick. He played sick all night and never told me. So I think it was just an off night for Carson. He is going to take the day off. He didn’t sleep last night. This was a one time event for Carson. He is going to get healthy and play well in the playoffs.
OTB: Do you think, though, your team being able to beat a good Long Beach State team with Clark having an off night is a big thing mentally your players can take away from the match?
JS: No question. This team has had some great performances from other players. You can’t say enough about the year Cory Yoder is having. He’s hardly had a bad match all year. He doesn’t make errors and is a highly intelligent player. He is a great passer and does all the little things that make a big difference. Jordan DuFault has had a great senior season. We had good contributions from other players and our bench has come in when we needed it this year. With Scott Kevorken we took him from outside and moved him to middle when Austin D’Amore got hurt in the middle of the year. Jeremy Dejno has come in to serve and has had an incredible year. We had different players throughout the year come in and fill roles and were very effective for us. We’ve had everyone contribute and that’s what makes this a great team.
OTB: In talking about Dejno and your team’s serving, this year you are leading the MPSF in aces and aces per game average. How has your team been so successful at the service line this year?
JS: We’ve been serving well this year. Carson has been great for us, and Jeremy Dejno doesn’t even start and he’s in the top 10 for aces per game. He is coming off the bench and for the most part gets one rotation per game. That’s incredible that he’s in the top 10. I think his contribution has helped. I think other guys have all contributed. Yoder has improved his serving. Kevorken has improved his serving, and when he can go back there he has put on runs for us. … We got players on this team with good arms and can go back there and serve. We also have two middles who are good servers and that is something not many other teams have.
OTB: In looking season and your success in result years, do you have to win an NCAA championship to consider this season a success or can you achieve something smaller and still consider it successful?
JS: Part of this program’s success is that we haven’t become totally consumed with winning national championships. Winning championships is important and we discuss that with the players as one of our goals. But the way we built this program and won is focusing on the process and making sure we understand the value of coming in every day and working hard and maximizing a player’s potential. I came from UCLA and was influenced as a coach by John Wooden and Al Scates. The two are very different. Al is all about winning championships and he has done that to the highest level possible in NCAA history. Wooden was high in maximizing an individual’s potential. The lessons I learned from them I have taken and applied here in equal measure. When we discuss what we want to do and accomplish, we know the only way to do that is focus on today. Our goal is to become the best team, and sometimes the best team wins and sometimes it doesn’t win. We want to make sure to be the best team possible. We have moved closer to that goal than where we were a couple months ago, and I think we still have little bit to go in these final few weeks. We are still working hard in gym. I like the work ethic we have on this team, and if we can stay focused and make sure we aren’t distracted by the big picture and focus on the process, I think we’ll be in a good position at end.