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USC, UC Irvine find their calling in volleyball final

During his first four seasons heading UC Irvine’s men’s volleyball program, John Speraw often was the first coach to call top recruits.

But three years ago, after Bill Ferguson became USC’s head coach, Speraw got a surprise when he dialed prospects.

“That first year, when Fergie took over, I was the second guy,” Speraw said. “I knew that we had a lot to deal with. I knew that was going to be an issue.

“They’ve upped the ante on the recruiting side, and they’re seeing the results.”

Red-hot USC will try to continue its season-ending streak today when the Trojans play Irvine in the NCAA championship match at Provo, Utah.

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Led by setter Riley McKibbin, outside hitters Tony Ciarelli and Tri Bourne and All-America opposite Murphy Troy, USC advanced to the final by defeating defending national champion Penn State in four games.

The Trojans (21-10) last won a title in 1990. They are in the championship match for the first time since 1991.

“When I was hired here three years ago, this was our mission, to get to this point and be playing for a national championship,” Ferguson said.

Top-seeded Irvine (26-5), the 2007 NCAA champion, swept Ohio State in the semifinals to set up the fourth match of the season between the teams from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

Irvine, featuring All-American setter Ryan Ammerman, middle blocker Kevin Wynne, outside hitter Jordan DuFault and opposite Carson Clark, defeated USC twice during the regular season, beating the Trojans in five games at USC’s Galen Center in February and in four games at Irvine’s Bren Events Center in early April.

USC’s second defeat against Irvine came during a six-game road stretch at the end of the season that apparently toughened the Trojans.

When the MPSF tournament began late last month, USC went on the road and beat Stanford. The Trojans then traveled to Irvine and swept the top-ranked Anteaters before outlasting Pepperdine in to advance to the Final Four.

On the eve of tonight’s championship match, Ferguson said the Trojans seemed as if they were “on autopilot” in the way they handled each step of their preparation.

“It’s been a real pleasure to see these guys perform well and stay loose and live in the moment,” Ferguson said. “It’s really helped our play, and we seem to be rising to the occasion every time we get a chance.”

Speraw said he hopes the Anteaters pass better than they did the last time they played the Trojans. Irvine also must show why it entered the Final Four as the top blocking team in the nation.

Today’s match, Speraw intimated, appears to be a beginning rather than an end in regard to playing the Trojans in championship settings.

“Two years down the road we could be in this exact same situation,” he said. “We’re going to have future battles.”

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gary.klein@latimes.com


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