The UC Irvine men's volleyball program has developed a rather odd tradition lately. And Anteaters Coach John Speraw is hoping it will continue this season.
UCI captured NCAA championships in 2007 and 2009 and, according to at least one preseason poll, will be among the top candidates to capture the crown in 2011.
Speraw's squad, which was 15-15 and finished No. 8 in the final national poll last season, was picked tied for first in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation preseason poll with USC.
The Anteaters boast All-American returners Carson Clark and Jordan DuFault, while senior middle blocker Kevin Wynne earned All-American honors as a sophomore in 2009.
Inconsistent play at setter and libero contributed to last year's eighth-place MPSF finish, in a season that included a 1-9 record in five-game matches.
Freshman Daniel Stork, a high school All-American out of Crespi High in Encino, could solidify the setting role that may also include senior Anthony Spittle.
Stork's father, Jeff, was a three-time Olympian and the starting setter for the U.S. national team that won a gold medal in Seoul in 1988. Jeff Stork is the women's coach at Cal State Northridge, where Matt Stork, Daniel's older brother, is a junior setter on the men's team.
"His strength and speed are very freshman-esque," Speraw said of Daniel Stork. "But his hands are better than a typical freshman and maybe some of his experience, because of growing up with his dad and seeing a lot of high-level volleyball."
Clark, a 6-foot-5 opposite, competed with the national team in the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Championships in Rome, Italy in October. A high-flying left-hander, he led the nation with 50 service aces last season and his 5.04 kills per set ranked No. 3 nationally. He was a first-team All-American in 2010 and has earned first-team All-MPSF honors the last two seasons.
"Clearly, the [national team] experience has made him a better volleyball player," Speraw said of Clark. "We all know that he can become a great player. The expectations people will place upon him are something he is going to have to manage."
DuFault, a 6-4 outside hitter, was second-team All-American and All-MPSF last season, when he averaged 4.06 kills per set and led the team with 243 digs.
"Jordan had really quite a remarkable year last year," Speraw said. "Considering our setting wasn't consistent, the fact that he hit at the percentage he hit (.333) was quite remarkable."
Senior outside hitter Cory Yoder was third on the team with 202 kills in 2010, but he could shift to libero to fill in for returning starter Will Montgomery, a sophomore who is expected to be out until February after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.
Additional outside hitters include 6-4 junior Kevin Carroll and 6-8 freshman Jeremy Dejno (pronounced day-no), as Speraw indicated a preference for redshirting Connor Hughes, who had 68 kills as a true freshman last season.
Veterans Austin D'Amore and Wynne, 6-5 and 6-7, respectively, are joined by 6-9 freshman Scott Kevorken to spearhead a deep and talented corps of middle blockers, Speraw said.
Speraw said Dejno has displayed impressive serving ability, something the ninth-year coach believes could be a supreme strength for his team this season.
"I think Dejno has a chance to be a really special player," Speraw said of the Wisconsin product. "He hits the ball pretty well, but only one speed, which is really hard. That's not a bad place to start. Potentially, he could lead the nation in aces.
"I think we have a chance to be a great serving team, much better than we were last year."
Would-be senior setter Jeff Schmitz and Kenny Webster, who would have been a senior libero with some experience, left the program. Speraw said an unidentified transfer who will be a freshman, is awaiting eligibility clearance, and may eventually handle the libero duties.
"We've got to figure out our libero situation and the setting," Speraw said. "Some people are going to be saying 'Why can't Speraw figure it out?' But I'm not going to worry about that. I'm going to worry about being the best volleyball team we can be at the end of the year and we're going to take a look at some guys."
Speraw said he can look ahead and see a title contender this season, But his team is not there, yet.
"If our pieces all come together, everything could go well and this team could be really good," Speraw said. "But I don't think we put it together at any point during the fall, and I don't think we'll have put it together in [early January] either. We're going to be a team that learns along the way and is hopefully playing our best volleyball in April and we can win the MPSF Tournament. That being said, I also felt the same way in 2009 and we went 20-2 [in conference]. I wouldn't mind being pleasantly surprised."
The Anteaters open the season Wednesday at Cal Baptist at 7 p.m. They compete in a tournament at UC Santa Barbara Friday and Saturday and play their home and MPSF opener Jan. 12 against UC San Diego at 6 p.m.