LOS ANGELES – Dan McDonnell came out of the timeout huddle, waited for the official’s whistle, and then rocketed a serve at Southern Cal.
In a flash, after three games of some of the most hotly contested, give-up-your-body rallies you could imagine, the ball went untouched to the floor for a walk-off ace and with it UC Irvine had won the 2012 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship. It took a second to register, that another epic battle between these two programs had ended so abruptly. And then the Anteaters celebrated the school’s third title in six years.
The 25-22, 34-32, 26-24 victory capped a remarkable 10 days of competition for UC Irvine, most of which occurred on Southern California’s homecourt in the Galen Center, which on this night was filled with 9,612 fans, the third-largest crowd for an NCAA men’s championship match.
“Everyone will see the 3-0, but we all know how close it was,” 10th-year UCI coach John Speraw said.
Close? USC saw the first set tied 20-20. In the second, the Trojans led 15-8.
“We had that tight, emotional game in the first set and took a breath and didn’t have time to take a breath against SC,” Speraw said. “They were playing great.”
But UCI creeped back to a 20-20 tie, seeing USC serve for set-point at 24-23, 27-26 and 30-29.
“I think when we won that game that was real tough for them,” Speraw said. “It’s a tough thing to overcome when you have lead and then all of a sudden you’re down 0-2.
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Perhaps, but in the third set, it looked like there would be a fourth, with USC leading 24-23 before McDonnell had a block, Carson Clark blasted one of his match-high 22 kills, and USC called time.
During the break, UCI junior reserve Will Montgomery went right to McDonnell, the 6-foot-6 senior middle blocker from Glendale, Ariz.
“Monty got me pretty fired up. He said, ‘This is the stuff we live for. This is what it’s all about.’ He’s been great with kind of stuff all season long. That got me really fired up. I thought, show no fear here. I had a pretty good serving night so that played into it a little bit. So I just tossed the ball and went for it.”
UC Irvine finished its season 26-5; USC ended 24-6 with three of the defeats to the national champs.
As the teams shook hands, many of the players on each team took the time give hugs and congratulations. No hug lasted longer than the ones between USC sixth-year coach Bill Ferguson and Irvine’s Clark and Chris Austin.
“He played club for me for several years, so I’ve know him since he was a young kid,” Ferguson said.
“It was bittersweet. I coached Chris Austin, their setter, in the USA High Performance program several years ago … Between working with those two guys, it was unfortunately bittersweet.”
“It’s kind of bittersweet a little bit,” said Clark, who didn’t know that Ferguson had said the same thing. “The two schools that I was choosing were UCI and USC and it ended up not working out at USC so I’ve always had that connection with him. But we were just talking about my career and he was very happy for me with how it worked out. I’m stoked with what happened and I got very lucky. I don’t know, it’s bittersweet.”
Clark was named the tournament MVP after a championship-match performance that saw the 6-foot-5 senior from Santa Barbara notch 22 kills in 43 attempts with only two errors for a .465 hitting percentage. He had 10 of his kills in the second set.
Clark was more than modest after the match, crediting his passers and Austin for making it easy for him.
“Carson’s a man. For real,” said Austin, a junior from Henderson, Nev. “He’s been the guy all year long. He’s a guy you know you can rely on when clutch time comes to the point where you can set him every ball in a national-championship match and never worry one time that the ball’s not going to be put away.”
For that matter, Speraw said, “Carson hadn’t been great for a couple of weeks. Offensively. He’d been doing everything else great. But offensively it had been a struggle for him the last couple of weeks and for him to come out in the last match of his career and hit .465 is unbelievable. I actually was a little frustrated with Chris in the middle of the match that he wasn’t setting him more. I told Chris at the end, I said, ‘Every transition ball you set Chris. Every single ball. You just set him till we go home.”
Home is about 50 miles away, where Irvine has a third title trophy to add to the ones it won in 2007 and then again in 2009 when the Anteaters also beat USC in the final.
And then came the most recent Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. In the quarterfinals at Irvine, it knocked off UCLA and ended the 50-year coaching career of the Bruins’ Al Scates. That alone was filled with its own drama, since Speraw is a former player and assistant coach at UCLA and considered by many to be the heir apparent, but he also would like to be the next U.S. Olympic coach, and, well, that’s another story for another day but suffice it to say he has a lot of decisions to make in the near future.
In the regular season, UCI and USC split their two matches, which set up an MPSF semfinal for the ages. On April 26, USC won the first two sets, but Irvine ralled and came away with a 24-26, 23-25, 25-16, 28-26, 15-9 victory. Then Irvine rallied again from 0-2 to beat Stanford in five to claim the MPSF’s automatic bid to the championship.
One thing Speraw figured was that when it played USC again it would have to get away from working the middle and be effective from the outside. That meant that Austin had to get the ball to sophomore outside Connor Hughes, who responded with 13 kills in 28 attempts.
The match ended the career of USC senior Tony Ciarelli, the national player of the year, who has the distinction of making it to three NCAA championships but winning none.
“I thought it was pretty clear that UCI was the better team and you’ve got to give all the credit to them,” said Ciarelli, the senior from Huntington Beach who had 18 kills in 45 swings but three service errors. “They really peaked at the end of the season.”
That’s why Austin said simply, “Nothing is impossible to this team. Down 2-0, we figure it out. Down 7-14 we figure it out. The other night (in a semifinal win over Penn State), Daniel Stork came in (for Austin) and we figured it out. This team is relentless, relentless when it comes to coming back in matches and bringing that energy. And that’s the mental side of the game.”
It all added up to a great night for men’s college volleyball and a happy bunch of Anteaters.
“We’re obviously ecstatic,” Speraw said. “This is a wonderful night for our institution, I think we’re a young school that has never had the opportunity to have so many of our fans in one building at one time to see an event like this.
“To have all those fans there to connect with their university, their alma mater, to have us come out on top, is just a tremendous night for UC Irvine.”