UC Irvine Crowned National Champs

Julie and Ed Chan
Penn State freshman Aaron Russell hits out of the middle.

After beginning the season ranked No. 2 in the VBM weekly media poll, UC Irvine bounced around in the rankings, never holding the No. 1 spot for more than one week. But they brought their A game to the match that counted – the NCAA DI National Championship Finals. The Anteaters swept USC on May 5 to bring home the program’s third national title in six years.

“We’re obviously ecstatic,” said Head Coach and VBM Co-Coach of the Year John Speraw. “It’s wonderful for our institution, a young school who’s never had the opportunity to have this many fans in one building at one time to see an event like this. To have all those fans there to be able to connect with the university and their alma mater and to have us come out on top is just a tremendous night for UC Irvine.”

Semifinals Game 1

Overcoming an opening set loss to Penn State, eventual national champs UC Irvine powered back winning three straight sets to close out the Nittany Lions season (18-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-19). All-American Kevin Tillie hit .500 and added 21 kills and 8 digs to the Anteaters effort, while Penn State’s Joe Sunder and Nick Goodell each contributed 15 kills.

“We were fired up at the beginning. We made some errors in the first set and looked at each other, and after the start of the second we were ready to go,” said Tillie. “We got fired up and played our game a little more.”

The second and third sets were all UC Irvine, with Tillie and fellow All-American Carson Clark leading the charge. But Penn State wasn’t ready to let them off easy, roaring back in the final set to tie and take the lead, but eventually conceding the match.

Semifinals Game 2

Despite having Playing of the Year Tony Ciarelli and a packed and encouraging home court crowd on their side, USC had to fight to keep the Lewis men’s volleyball squad at bay, eventually winning a contentious game 3-1 (25-18, 25-12, 18-25, 27-25). The second of two semifinal matches was played in front of a crowd of 4,375 fans on Thursday, May 3.

Illinois-based Lewis University, winners of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament, hit just .120 and .125 in the first two sets, and seemed to be outplayed by the Trojans. But the Flyers didn’t travel all the way to the way coast to go down quietly, and by the third set they hit their stride and the tempo of the game completely swung to the other side. After taking the third set handily, USC won the fourth, and moved onto to the title match.

“We were thrilled to get through that with a victory,” said USC head coach Bill Ferguson. “We expended a lot of energy in the initial sprint of the first two sets. I told my guys that Lewis will come back. They had done that throughout the season. I could see it coming. Hats off to them, they picked up their energy and made some changes and it worked.”

Finals

A rowdy and packed Cinco de Mayo crowd was on hand to witness the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team as it captured its third national title in six years against a strong and formidable opponent in their home gym. USC was bolstered by a home court crowd at the Galen Center, but lost in three sets to the Anteaters (25-22, 34-32, 26-24). The match was played in front of 9,612 fans, the third highest in history.

Irvine was led by All-American senior Carson Clark who had a match-high 22 kills and a .465 hitting percentage and was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, while the Trojans were strengthened by Player of the Year Tony Ciarelli who had 18 kills and 8 digs.

“I think this was a good night for volleyball. It was a great match,” said UC Irvine Head Coach John Speraw, who also led the squad to national titles in 2007 and 2009. “Everyone will see it was 3-0 but everyone knows how close it really was all the way through. We didn’t get rattled and stayed very poised.”

Clark, who also won a national championship his freshman year, said his career at UCI has evolved throughout the years.

“In ’09 I kind of got to ride the tail there,” he said. “This time was different because it was more of a mental fight maintaining good emotions and managing frustrations…Tonight we didn’t worry about anything but the next point.”

This was the nearby rival’s fourth meeting of the 2012 season, in which UCI took three of the four Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matchups, including a 5-set win in the semifinal match of the MPSF Tournament.

Originally published in July 2012

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