The surroundings were familiar indeed and the result was also reminiscent of glory days past for former UC Irvine men’s volleyball staples John Speraw, David Smith, Carson Clark and Ryan Ammerman on Saturday night.
But for Speraw, the former UCI head coach now leading the U.S. national team, and the three aforementioned Team USA players who all earned All-American honors as Anteaters, the 25-18, 25-22, 25-19 triumph over Iran included an atmosphere that was anything but friendly in the finale of the USA Cup exhibition series between the two countries.
The Bren Events Center was filled to near capacity to watch the Americans’ final tuneup for the World Championships that begin Aug. 30 in Poland. But a clear majority of the almost 5,000 rooters were there to support the “visitors.” And that support created a crowd as loud as any gathered for volleyball at UCI.
“We have experiences against hostile crowds on the road, where, truthfully, we spend most of our time [competing],” said Speraw, who guided UCI to NCAA titles in 2007, 2009 and 2012 before leaving to take the helm of his alma mater, UCLA two years ago. “I am, of course, happy that we were able to play a really tough team and come away with the win.”
It was the third victory in four matches, spanning eight days, against Iran for Team USA, which won the World League title last month and is ranked No. 4 in the world. And it gave those in attendance, even the decibel-challenged American supporters, a closer look at the lineup that will be featured in Poland.
Smith, a 6-foot-7 middle blocker, started and contributed five points, including three blocks and two kills.
“I was really looking forward to coming back,” said Smith, 29, who resides in Newport Beach. “It feels different, kind of weird, to be with a different team, with different intensity and a different level of play. But Irvine is home and it’s always fun to play here.”
Clark, a 6-6 opposite, did not play Saturday, but contributed greatly in matches Friday in San Diego (a four-set loss) and Wednesday at the Anaheim Convention Center (another sweep).
In Anaheim, Clark led all scorers with 16 points, including 14 kills and two aces. He led the Americans with 23 points on Friday, blasting 19 kills and adding one block.
“Carson has the opportunity to become a good player that can start,” said Speraw, who listed Clark behind starting opposite Matt Anderson, a Penn State product who led the winners with 20 kills Saturday. “We could move [Anderson] back to outside hitter, so there are some things we can do depth-wise. When [Clark] has the opportunity to come out and play in these friendly matches, he needs to learn as much as he can.”
Speraw, whose staff includes assistant and Estancia High product Matt Fuerbringer, said he was pleased with Smith’s performance Saturday.
“I thought [Smith] did great,” Speraw said. “I’ve been coaching him for a long time, so it was fun for me to come out on the Bren floor and compete with him once again. We had a lot of victories in this building together.”
Outside hitter Taylor Sander, who played collegiately at BYU, had 13 kills for the Americans, who also benefited from middle blocker and Penn State product Max Holt (six kills, three blocks and two aces) as well as former USC setter Micah Christenson (five of the eight U.S. aces).
Speraw said Saturday’s lineup was as close to the one that will be featured in Poland as any in the USA Cup matches. And while the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is still the primary focus of most Americans, he said the World Championships is considered the pinnacle event for the rest of the volleyball world.
“It’s another opportunity to help our team learn and play against the best teams in the world under really pressure situations,” Speraw said of the 24-team World Championships that continue through Sept. 21. It’s not the most important tournament [to Americans], but I think our guys are really excited about it. And we haven’t won it since 1986, so we’d like to change that.”