Speraw's return a triumph

IRVINE — Former UC Irvine men's volleyball coach John Speraw forged a lot of special memories, including three national championships, during a 10-year stint at the Anteaters' helm.

And in his initial return to the Bren Events Center as the head man at UCLA, the only thing that might have supplemented his feel-good evening was a red carpet in front of the visiting bench.

Speraw's No. 4-ranked Bruins dispatched the short-handed No. 2-ranked  'Eaters, 25-16, 25-16, 19-25, 25-17, on Saturday, allowing Speraw to smile broadly as he reconnected with old friends before and after the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match.

"I just like it here," said Speraw, who was named Monday as the U.S. men's national team coach for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. "I like the people here, and I have a lot of friends in the stands. It was nice for me to come back and it was nice to see the [2012 NCAA championship] banner [hanging from the rafters]. I hadn't seen the banner yet."

Speraw had seen a UCI squad that defeated UCLA in five games twice in January. But UCI was without senior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie, sidelined with a back ailment that Coach David Kniffin said is not serious.

The Bruins (19-9, 13-7 in conference), who ended a two-week layoff with a victory Friday at UC San Diego, were not ailing in the least, especially early.

"I thought we came out and really executed well early," Speraw said. "I thought we had our best set of the season in that first set. We came out and played really good volleyball."

Conversely, UCI (17-6, 14-6), which had not played since March 15, appeared on its heels in the first two games. At that point, UCI trailed, 7-1, in team blocks, and was some 322 points down in the hitting-percentage battle, as the Bruins had a blistering .562 team efficiency rate.

UCI junior Connor Hughes had seven of his team-best 12 kills in Game 3, when the hosts posted a 6.5-2 team blocking advantage and held Bruins hitters to an .083 clip.

But UCLA hit .520 in the fourth set to avoid a fifth game. The Bruins finished with a .394 hitting percentage, 210 points better than UCI. UCLA also led in digs (42-33), aces (5-2) and team blocks (11-10.5).

Sophomore middle blocker led UCI with five block assists, while hitting .375 and posting four kills.

Junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno had nine kills and one ace, while sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera added eight kills and hit .312, before being benched for freshman Kyle Russell. Russell had five kills and eight errors in 22 attempts (negative .136), but had four block assists and earned praise from Kniffin.

Sophomore libero Michael Brinkley had 15 digs, including a handful of spectacular efforts,  but it clearly was Speraw's night.

"I was very happy to be here," Speraw said. "I think this is a great arena to play in and I had a lot of fun today."

UCLA junior setter Connor Bannan, a Corona del Mar High product, had 50 assists and his five block assists tied for the team high. He also had one ace.

UCI, which closes out the regular season with five more home matches, plays on Sunday at 4 p.m.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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