Anteaters are loaded

The novelty of having a national championship contender has long worn off for the UC Irvine men's volleyball program. So, the fact that this year's veteran-laden team was picked to finish second in the sport's elite conference, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, prompts neither excitement, nor concern from 10th-year coach John Speraw.

"I think we'll win more matches than we lose and I think we'll be in the mix in the end," said Speraw, who guided UCI to NCAA championships in 2007 and 2009. "Are the expectations good? Yeah. Fine. I don't really think about it that much."

When Speraw thinks of this year's squad, which opened with a 25-20, 25-18, 25-21 win over visiting Cal Baptist on Wednesday, two words come to mind.

"Athleticism and depth," said Speraw, who believes the 2012 squad is the most athletic and the deepest he has coached at Irvine.

"As a coach, you want to coach athletes," Speraw, an assistant coach for the gold-medal-winning U.S. men's team at the 2008 Olympics, said. "And we have more athletes on the floor than we've ever had, so that aspect of it is fun. Can we develop the skill and can we become a great team? That obviously still needs to be seen."

What UCI observers will see is a high-flying, hard-hitting assemblage of hitters, who will bang both at the net and at the service line.

Two-time All-American Carson Clark, a 6-foot-5 senior opposite who was third in the NCAA last season in kills per set (5.45), is the most experienced and most heralded weapon at the disposal of sophomore setter Daniel Stork.

Senior Kevin Carroll, who led the Anteaters with 11 kills in the opener, is joined at outside hitter by 6-8 sophomore Jeremy Dejno, while 6-5 junior Kevin Tillie, a transfer from Thomas Rivers University in Canada, has generated plenty of buzz as well.

Seniors Dan McDonnell (6-6) and Austin D'Amore, 6-6 and 6-5, respectively, top a corps of middle blockers that also includes 6-9 sophomore Scott Kevorken.

Stork, who started a handful of matches last season, takes over as the full-time trigger man.

Junior Will Thomas, a key element in the leadership quotient, will contribute at libero, where heralded freshman Michael Brinkley is also expected to make an impact.

Freshman opposite Zach La Cavera and sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes are also expected to contribute for a team coming off a 19-12 season that ended with a loss to USC in the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament.

"We have more arms in the gym than we've ever had," Speraw said. "Carson and Dejno and Kevin Carroll and Kevin Tillie give us some guys who can really hit the ball hard."

Added to that group is Clark and La Cavera, both of whom Speraw referred to as high-rising leapers.

Speraw said pounding the ball at high velocity will make the Anteaters a dangerous serving team.

"We could go back there and hammer the ball and blow teams out and there's nothing they can do to stop us," said Speraw, whose team had seven aces and 15 service errors in the opener. "But we're also absolutely capable of missing a lot of serves, because that's a high-risk game."

Speraw said leadership is more prevalent with this team than it was last season, though he won't necessarily count upon Stork to lead the cheers.

"Daniel is naturally a little bit quieter and, truthfully, that's fine," Speraw said of the son of Jeff Stork, a three-time Olympian who was the starting setter on the American team that won gold in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. Jeff Stork is also the men's coach at Cal State Northridge. "I just want [Daniel Stork] to concentrate on setting the ball. He has elite potential, because he has elite hands. But he is going to be setting his first full season in this league."

Speraw said Tillie, a native of France who played on the French junior national team and was a second-team All-Canadian who averaged 4.41 kills per set last season, has generated "a ton of hype." Tillie did not play in the opener due to a sprained ankle.

"[Tillie] played in the Manhattan Beach six-man this year and he just tore it up," Speraw said. "But the NCAA is a different game. He's a human being and he's still trying to figure out the game. He's a very fluid athlete, who is a good defender. He can serve the ball tough and he can pass, so there's a very good chance he is going to spend a lot of time on the court."

UCI will meet BYU Friday morning at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational and will play host to the Cougars, picked to win the MPSF, on Jan. 13 and 14 at the Bren Events Center.

Other key home contests include USC (Jan. 27), Stanford (Feb. 17) and UCLA (March 31).

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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