UCI defeats USC for NCAA men’s volleyball championship

Carson Clark seriously contemplated leaving UC Irvine after the 2011 season to begin his professional volleyball career overseas.

Irvine Coach John Speraw persuaded the fifth-year senior opposite hitter to stay, selling him on the addition of French import Kevin Tillie and a chance to win a second national title.

It all worked out for Clark and the Anteaters.

Irvine cut down the net and collected pieces of the floor as souvenirs on Saturday after defeating USC, 25-22, 34-32, 26-24 in the NCAA championship match before a packed Galen Center.

“I’m happy I stayed,” an exhausted but ecstatic Clark said. “I’m really happy I stayed.”

Clark, voted the most outstanding player in the Final Four, had 22 kills with a hitting percentage of .465. He fairly willed the Anteaters to victory, especially in the second set when they overcame a seven-point deficit to win and deflate the Trojans.

“I thought it was pretty clear that UCI was the better team,” USC outside hitter Tony Ciarelli said. “They really, really peaked at the end of the season.”

USC mostly neutralized Tillie but had no answer for the 6-foot-5 Clark, a left-hander from Santa Barbara who also played on Irvine’s 2009 national championship team.

“I didn’t really do much,” he said, deflecting praise to setter Chris Austin. “He made it really easy for me.”

Clark made plays in the air, on his feet, his knees, his stomach and even his back.

That performance, combined with Austin’s steady setting, the blocking of Dan McDonnell and Scott Kevorken, the passing of libero Michael Brinkley and the hitting of Tillie and Connor Hughes was too much for the Trojans, who also lost to Irvine in the championship match two years ago.

“Once he got rolling,” Hughes said of Clark, “we knew there was no way they were going to stop him.”

Hughes had 13 kills, Tillie 11 for Irvine (26-5), which led by four points midway through the third set and then held off the Trojans. The score was tied, 24-24, when Clark gave the Anteaters a lead with a kill.

After a timeout by USC, McDonnell closed out the match with an ace.

It was the third championship in 10 years for Speraw, who might have coached his last match at Irvine. The former UCLA player and assistant spent this season warding off speculation that he will replace the recently retired Al Scates at his alma mater.

“We’re a young school who’s never had an opportunity to have this many fans in one building at one time to see an event like this,” Speraw said. “To have all those fans there and to connect with their university and to have us come out on top is just a tremendous night for UC Irvine.”

Meantime, USC Coach Bill Ferguson remains in search of his first title.

The Trojans, who won 18 consecutive matches at one point this season, fell short in the third Final Four appearance in four years and finished 24-6. They have not won an NCAA title since 1990.

Ciarelli, the American Volleyball Coaches Assn. player of the year, had 18 kills, Tanner Jansen 10 for the Trojans.