Colleges: UCI shines on huge stage

In its fourth NCAA Final Four in the last seven seasons and its third final in the last six years, UC Irvine encountered something it had not before in Saturday's championship match at USC's Galen Center.

The top deck, normally reserved for a few late arrivals at other venues, was nearly filled to capacity as the 9,612 in attendance marked the third-largest crown ever for an NCAA men's volleyball final.

No. 2-ranked and No. 1-seeded UCI completed a 25-22, 34-32, 26-24 victory over the No. 1-ranked and No. 2-seeded Trojans that was anything but sweeping.

Only the 1998 title match at Hawaii between UCLA and Pepperdine (9,822) and the 1984 final in which host UCLA defeated Pepperdine (9,809) surpassed Saturday in numbers. But it would be difficult to imagine those crowds matching the volume and energy created by passionate fans from both schools Saturday.

"At the World Championships in Italy, I played in front of 9,000 people and it was the most intense place I'd ever played, until we got here," said UCI senior opposite Carson Clark, whose match-high 22 kills and three aces led to his selection as Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. "It was just, the crowd was amazing. And I can honestly say that over half were UCI fans. I can't say enough about our [students] because we don't win without them there. USC had such a big group of fans and the heckles were just going left and right. But we had our fans there to nullify that, which was huge for us."

UCI Coach John Speraw, who in 10 seasons has guided the Anteaters (26-5) to NCAA titles in 2012, 2009 and 2007, and a Final Four appearance in 2006, also saw the significance of the huge crowd.

"I think it was a good night for volleyball," Speraw said. "And, I think this is a wonderful night for our institution. We're a young school that has never had an opportunity to have this many fans in one building at one time to see an event like this. To have all these fans there to connect university and their alma mater, and to have us come out on top, is just a tremendous night for UC Irvine."

USC Coach Bill Ferguson was similarly pleased by the atmosphere created by the first men's volleyball NCAA Championship hosted by USC.

"On a broader scale, I thought the level of play in that match was unbelievable," said Ferguson, whose team finished 24-6. The fan support for both steams was unbelievable. I hope everyone involved in this understands what an unbelievable thing that was for our game tonight. I don't think I've ever seen an atmosphere like that for a national championship match. I think we took college volleyball to another level tonight and that's something we're very proud of."

Speraw was asked about comparisons between his three title teams.

"The thing that is most notable about this team is just the team effort," Speraw said. "This is the deepest team we've ever had at UCI, and we train like it every day. This is the best practice team I've ever had. We practiced so well. We hardly ever had a bad day. And I think that that intensity, that competitiveness, that depth, makes our team stand out to me."

Looking ahead to 2013, UCI loses only two starters (Clark and senior middle blocker Dan McDonnell), while key backups Austin D'Amore (middle blocker) and Kevin Carroll (outside hitter) are also seniors.

But the biggest factor will be whether Speraw returns. He is rumored to be the top candidate to replace Al Scates at UCLA, where he played and coached.

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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