Soon after Rob Espero was bitten hard by the volleyball bug, he gravitated toward the setter position because, he said, he liked the idea of running the show.
More than 30 years later, the Costa Mesa resident is still doing just that from behind a microphone, helping spread the gospel of the sport he loves one catch phrase at a time.
In his third decade as the public-address announcer for UC Irvine men's and women's volleyball, Espero has also performed those duties for many CIF Southern Section championship matches, two NCAA men's championships, an Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach event, and, since 2009, as the voice of USA Volleyball, working matches for both men's and women's national teams.
Espero's stature in the volleyball community, long established in Southern California, has expanded through his work with the national teams. His summer duties included manning the mic for the USA Cup exhibition series that culminates Saturday at UCI's Bren Events Center.
The American men, guided by former UCI coach John Speraw and assistant coach Matt Fuerbringer, an Estancia High product, will square off against Iran at 6 p.m. The American roster on Saturday will include former Anteater All-Americans Carson Clark and Ryan Ammerman. Team USA's rotating roster has also featured former UCI All-American David Smith.
Espero, 45, who graduated from UCI and planned to play volleyball for the school before ankle and back problems ended his career before it began, said he is expecting a sellout at the 5,000-seat Bren Center, where his distinctive voice has resonated for years.
"I'd be surprised if it wasn't rocking," said Espero, who noted that USA wins over Iran in USA Cup showdowns at USC's Galen Center (on Aug. 9) and the Anaheim Convention Center (Wednesday) have featured enthusiastic crowds made up primarily of Iran supporters.
Team USA preparing for the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Championships that begin Aug. 30 in Poland, played Iran on Friday night in San Diego.
Rocking is just the way Espero likes it. And he usually provides a descriptive back-beat to the audible flow of any match he works.
"I try to add some flair to the matches, because I feel like the athletes and the sport are not promoted enough," said Espero, whose collection of catch phrases reveal his vibrant personality, as well as his passion for the game.
"I grew up listening to [late former Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play announcer] Chick Hearn and also watching [ESPN] SportsCenter with my roommates," Espero said. "So, in the mid-1990s, I started jotting down catch phrases that could be descriptive about volleyball action."
It began, Espero said, with "Return to sender," to describe a block at the net. Others local volleyball fans would also recognize include: "Downtown pound" (a hard-hit kill); "Backyard barbecue" (a back set that leads to a kill); "Cross-court crush" (a kill to the opposite side of the court); and a "10-finger discount" (a two-handed block).
Espero has enough descriptive phrases to avoid much repetition and his offerings are as creative as they are numerous.
Among the most colorful: "If you feed the Big Dog, he will guard the yard" (created for former UCI standout Kyle Weichert, who was nicknamed Big Dog; "Victimize, facialize and posterize" (for a block or kill that was particularly emphatic); "Bustin' out the whoopin' stick"; and "Slide, slide, slip 'n' slide" (for a slide attack most often used in the women's game).
Espero said he got his start quite by accident, when, as a UCI freshman, the unexpected absence of the scheduled PA announcer at an Anteaters match at Crawford Hall forced UCI media relations staffer Stacey King to seek a last-minute replacement.
"I knew Rob was knowledgeable about the game, because I had gone to school with him," King said. "I just kind of threw him into the fire."
Espero recalled that fire produced considerable heat.
"I thought that first match was a train wreck," Espero said. "I was sweating bullets and I didn't know what to say or when to say things. I didn't know if less was more, or more was less."
It didn't take long, however, for Espero to find his flow, which now includes radio broadcasts of UCI road matches, during which his descriptive skill and knowledge of the game paint an even more entertaining picture for his listeners.
"It's my claim to fame," King said of her role in initiating Espero's announcing career, which also includes occasional PA duties at UCI baseball and basketball games. "His knowledge and creativity helped him produce a nomenclature and vocabulary that has made him 'Rob on the Mic.' He gets the crowd excited with his voice, but he is much more than a voice. When USA Volleyball has you doing their matches, that's an indication that you are pretty special."
Espero, assistant director of disability services at UCI who readily admits "I bleed blue and gold," said his wife Tracey and 3-year-old daughter Jordan are very supportive of his supplementary sideline gig. And, he believes, his numerous courtside assignments are a privilege.