A volleyball team's bench is like winter firewood: all stacked up with the constant promise of delivering a spark.
When it comes to wielding the match, few have been more successful at fashioning a blaze with backups than UC Irvine Coach John Speraw.
At several points this season, including back-to-back five-set victories in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament last week that propelled the Anteaters (24-5) to the four-team NCAA Championship that begins Thursday at USC's Galen Center, Speraw has summoned a substitute who has proved to be catalytic.
In the MPSF semifinals against top-ranked USC on April 26, it was senior outside hitter Kevin Carroll who was the opportunistic understudy. Carroll, who had played roughly 20% of his team's sets to that point, produced 12 kills with a .476 hitting percentage, while adding one ace serve, seven digs and two block assists to help the No. 2-ranked 'Eaters overcome an 0-2 deficit in games.
Two nights later in the title match with Stanford, it was senior middle blocker Austin D'Amore, who had seized well less than half of his available playing time to that point, who came to the rescue. D'Amore, who watched the first two sets, both losses, chipped in four kills on seven swings (a .571 hitting percentage). He added two solo blocks and two block assists to help turn the tide against the Cardinal.
Junior outside hitter Connor Hughes's insertion into the starting lineup over first-team All-MPSF sophomore Jeremy Dejno spurred the current four-match win streak. And junior setter Chris Austin, propelled into the lineup when former starter Daniel Stork went down with a midseason concussion, are additional former reserves who have made the most of their opportunities.
At other times, freshman opposite Zack La Cavera spelled All-American Carson Clark with little discernible drop-off, and junior liberos Will Montgomery and Will Thomas have taken their turns adding a lift off the bench, both with their play and their emotional energy.
"A really unique part of our team this year is that we're so deep," said Austin, who was himself subbed out briefly for Stork against Stanford. "Literally in every position, we have a [backup] who has started at one point [at UCI], whether it's outside hitter, opposite, setter, middle blocker or libero. So, no one becomes complacent.
"When you look at other teams we play and one guy gets subbed out, it's kind of like you can see the faces of the guys on the team show a negative light," Austin said. "But on our team, any time a guy comes in, we think of it as a fresh start, because we know that guy is going to come in and take care of business, because he's been there before and we don't really have to worry about him."
Austin even described his benching on Saturday in positive terms.
"I looked at it as a good opportunity," Austin said. "Because when Daniel comes into a match, I know he's been there before and I don't have to worry that I let the team down. And it's the same with him. He knows that if he's not having his best match, that I'll come in and have his back. That's a wonderful thing. We don't really have a selfish mentality around here, because we realize that everybody around us is just as good, or can be just as good on a given night."
Hughes said the closeness of the players, who live together in small groups near one another in Newport Beach, helps foster a mutual motivation for team success.
"I think it's part of this program and the guys that are recruited to come to this program," Hughes said. "We kind of want to get the type of player who is all about the team and all about volleyball and winning. We don't like to emphasize too may individual aspects. Even when we talk as a group, like in meetings, we always talk about the whole, as opposed to the individual."
Hughes, who also credited Speraw for helping forge the family atmosphere, said quality depth also helps everyone develop and refine their own play.
"It helps in practice, too because we are playing against Grade-A-level players every day and it helps to just skip a whole level higher in practice," Hughes said.
D'Amore added to Hughes' comments, saying that that high level of practice intensity carries over into a match.
"When I go in, I try to bring the energy," D'Amore said.
Several players said the frequency with which Speraw makes lineup changes, helps keep everyone focused and ready.
"It's everyone," D'Amore said. "Everyone needs to be ready, because they know they can go in. Look what [Hughes] has been doing the last few matches. He hadn't been playing much, either, but he comes in and steps up huge at the end of the season when we need him most."
Speraw said he relies on his gut feeling to predicate personnel changes, though he also looks at statistics occasionally.
"People always say I'm pretty analytical, but I don't know if that's the case for me," Speraw said. "I do take a look at the stats, but there are a lot of times when I'm making decisions when I'm making them in terms of how I'm feeling this particular guy at this moment. It's usually a gut feeling."
Speraw, who said only about two in 10 substitutions do not produce a positive effect, hopes his gut will guide him well on Thursday, when the Anteaters take on No. 4-seeded Penn State (23-5) at 6 p.m.
USC (23-5) meets Lewis (26-6) in the other semifinal at 8 p.m. The title match is scheduled Saturday at 7 p.m.