Spittles forge UCI legacy

There are broken ping-pong paddles still wedged in the backyard trees at the Spittle house in Redondo Beach. And at the family's previous home in Lomita, the backyard grass likely still has difficulty growing, having been trampled by years of point-by-point plodding, on both sides of a painstakingly erected net, by members of the first family of UC Irvine men's volleyball.

Dean and Tina Spittle are counting down the days, sometimes moments, of a memorable nine-year run during which at least one of their sons — first Paul, then Nick, then current senior setter Anthony — have played for Anteaters coach John Speraw.

In that time, the Spittle brothers have forged a legacy as unique as it is admirable, in what has become one of the nation's top programs. During that span, UCI has played in three Final Fours and two NCAA title matches, capturing national championships in 2007 and 2009.

And while the Spittles are not among the growing roll call of All-Americans to have helped put Irvine on the volley map, Speraw is not alone among those who recognize that their presence has made an unmistakable mark.

"For me, it's something that is totally unique in sports, to have three brothers and to have them all be such great contributors to this program and its identity, and its character, and its competitiveness, and leadership qualities " Speraw said. "Those are just some of the things that the Spittles — all three of them, and their parents — all just epitomize. If you understand those components of success, then you'd have to recognize that the Spittles have had a huge impact on what we've been able to do."

Anthony, who ranks fourth among Mountain Pacific Sports Federation setters and sixth nationally in assists per game (11.18), helps lead the No. 3-ranked Anteaters (18-11) into a quarterfinal of the MPSF Tournament against No. 6-ranked Hawaii (15-12) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Crawford Court.

The youngest of the Spittle brothers, and perhaps the most talented, Anthony has emerged as the trigger man after battling freshman Daniel Stork for the job early in the season. Anthony has started 22 matches this season after seeing action in 69 sets as a junior part-time starter.

A former two-time Daily Breeze Player of the Year at Redondo High and an age-group All-American for the Southern California Volleyball Club, Anthony was a redshirt freshman on the 2007 title winner and a little-used backup on the 2009 title team.

Energy, as well as acumen, have allowed the youngest Spittle to flourish. But he still might be waiting his turn, had it not been for the trademark Spittle work ethic.

"The thing that all the Spittles have had to do is work really, really hard," Speraw said. "I think each of them had to understand the importance of being a role player, but none of them really wanted to settle for that. They all wanted to contribute and start and to be competitive athletes.

"Anthony has been in and out of the starting lineup the last couple of years and he kept coming into the gym in the morning and working hard and getting the extra reps he needed to be a better volleyball player and earn that [starting] spot. When I think about the Spittles, I don't think about somebody who has ever been given anything."

Speraw termed Paul, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter who as a senior captain and starter in 2006 helped lead the 'Eaters to their first MPSF regular-season crown and their first trip to the Final Four, the best leader he had ever been around. High praise indeed from Speraw, who played on and was an assistant coach for NCAA title squads at UCLA.

Nick, who like Paul starred at St. John Bosco High, was a libero who played a key reserve role on the 2009 team that beat USC in the NCAA final at BYU. He also was a member of the 2007 squad that topped Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne in the final at Ohio State.

"Nick was huge for us in a couple of matches when Brent [Asuka, the starting libero in 2009] had an off night," Speraw said. "And Nick could come in and serve and be a great leader."

Paul, now 27 and in commercial real estate after playing in 2009-10 in Ireland while earning a master's degree, was always the alpha male, according to his parents.

Dean, a self-proclaimed mediocre volleyball player at Redondo High, and Tina said Nick, 25 and a superintendent on the docks in the port of Los Angeles, where Dean has worked for 27 years, is the most shy of the three boys.

Paul and Nick live together in Manhattan Beach and regularly, along with Dean and Tina, attend Anthony's matches.

Anthony, 23, who finished work on his bachelor's degree during the winter quarter and is also planning to pursue his masters while playing in Ireland next year, may be the most laid-back and, perhaps, the most gregarious of the three, his parents said.

"When people ask me if I'm more like Paul or Nick, I like to tell them I'm more of a hybrid of both," Anthony said. "I've definitely learned a lot from both of them, and they've been great role models. But they both have their pitfalls and I've been able to see that and kind of learn from that as well."

It didn't take the Spittles long to catch what Anthony called "the volleyball bug."

Dean said he constructed the backyard volleyball court after Paul took a liking to the sport in junior high.

"It wasn't long, before we were setting, bumping, playing pepper back there," said Dean, who teamed with Paul in countless two-on-two duels against the tandem of Nick and Anthony.

"We had some pretty fun backyard games going," Anthony said. "I think overall, the matches were pretty even. Paul and my dad maybe won a few more times."

All three boys played several sports growing up, and their competitive nature led to occasional heated moments, such as those around the ping-pong table that resulted in the aforementioned broken paddles and crushed balls.

"Tina has a saying that the boys would fight over a piece of lint," Dean said. "They are very competitive."

All three boys eventually focused those competitive instincts on volleyball.

Paul was recruited to UCI by the staff headed by then-coach Charlie Brande, but Speraw replaced Brande before Paul's freshman season.

Paul briefly considered going elsewhere, until sitting next to Speraw, then a junior national team coach, on a flight to a junior national tournament in Canada.

"That sealed the deal," Tina said of Paul's introduction to Speraw. "He knew then he wanted to go to Irvine."

Nick followed in Paul's footsteps at UCI and, after briefly considering another route, Anthony extended the family connection.

But when UCI's postseason run ends this season, it will be at least a generation before another Spittle would potentially don a UCI jersey, a possibility Dean has already considered for any future grandchildren.

"We'll get them tuned up," Dean said with a knowing grin. "They'll be volley guys, I'm sure."

Until there may be another Spittle at UCI, Speraw said he is counting on Dean, Tina and their sons to be conspicuous supporters.

"I think we're probably going to have the Spittles in our gym for a long time," Speraw said.

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