Irvine's focus on final four, not No. 1
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
Do the math.
UC Irvine is No. 1 in both national polls.
The Anteaters finished No. 1 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the nation's top volleyball league.
As the No. 1 seed in the MPSF tournament, which begins with today's play-in match, the Anteaters have a bye until the semifinals.
But in calculating the Anteaters' chances of qualifying for the NCAA final four, head coach John Speraw figures:
1 + 1 + 1 = Uncertainty.
"We're not taking anything for granted," Speraw said. "I'd like to think that 20-2 (in the MPSF's regular season) would do the job. But who knows what would happen if we lose (in the semifinals). Anything can happen when a committee meets. I'd rather take care of it on the court."
Only the MPSF tournament winner earns the league's automatic berth in the final four. But the MPSF has supplied the at-large team in all but one of the past 24 NCAA tournaments.
The exception was in 1994, when IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne) of the Midwest was selected over Stanford, winner of the MPSF's Pacific Division. (The MPSF did away with the divisional format in 2002.)
That is why No. 2 Hawai'i (19-3), which finished with four more MPSF victories than No. 3 Pepperdine (15-7), probably would need to win the tournament title if Irvine loses in the playoffs.
"If we played Pepperdine again (the teams split in January), and Pepperdine beats us, someone might argue in favor of Pepperdine," UH coach Mike Wilton said. "Unfortunately with committees, a lot of factors can come into play. Our best chance is to win three more. That's always the safe way."
Here's a look at the MPSF tournament field, in order of seeding:
Seed: No. 1.
Record: 27-3, 20-2 in MPSF.
Next: Hosts April 27 semifinals.
Outlook: Big things started to happen to the Anteaters when they started to think small. "It was a matter of trying to understand our strengths," Speraw said. "I was at Pepperdine (for the MPSF championship) last year, and I knew we were never going to block the ball like Pepperdine. We don't have that size. We needed to figure out what we needed to do to be successful."
Speraw decided to place a greater emphasis on the serve-and-pass game, realizing accurate passing and a quicker offense would negate a taller opponent's block. The tactic gained support when libero Brent Asuka, a 2005 Iolani School graduate, joined the team. Speraw's contact, Peter Greenhill, who is affiliated with Iolani, sent videotapes of the Raiders' matches against Punahou and Kamehameha. Because both opponents served away from Asuka, a back-row specialist, Speraw had to make a decision based mostly on Greenhill's recommendation. "I trust his opinion," Speraw said. "It turned out well."
Asuka set the school's single-season record with 318 digs. Last week, he had 24 digs against Northridge. Even the big guns, outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky and opposite Matt Webber, developed into consistent passers.
"We're not super flashy, but we're super steady," Speraw said. "A lot of people think we play old-school volleyball. I'm proud of that."
Seed: No. 2.
Record: 23-4, 19-3 in MPSF.
Next: Hosts UCLA-UC Santa Barbara winner in Saturday's quarterfinals.
Outlook: Last June, Wilton sent each player a letter detailing the attitude and preparation needed to help the team contend for a national title. The goal of focusing on the goal was extended to the team's banquet Monday, during which no awards were presented. Instead, the players — and, even, Gov. Linda Lingle — spoke of setting their gears into championship drive.
Every player on the active roster was on last year's team. Yet the Warriors reinvented themselves through the "cauldron system," in which points are awarded for performances in practices, scrimmages and matches. The standings fluctuated early, leading to several lineup changes, before middle blocker Mauli'a LaBarre joined the rotation on Jan. 27 against UC Irvine. Two nights earlier, the Anteaters won in three games. With LaBarre as a starter, the Warriors swept the rematch, igniting a surge of 20 victories in 21 matches. They won a school-record 19 in a row to close the regular season.
Dio Dante has emerged as the MPSF's top blocker (1.71 per game). José José Delgado, Lauri Hakala and Matt Carere are as skilled in passing as attacking. Brian Beckwith has become the league's best setter. Beckwith provides the Warriors with a rare fifth passer; when Beckwith passes, libero Alfee Reft becomes the secondary setter. "They've got a nice arrangement," Wilton said.
Seed: No. 3.
Record: 16-7, 15-7 in MPSF.
Next: Hosts Cal State Northridge in Saturday's quarterfinals.
Outlook: Two constants about the Waves: their block is tall and geographical focus is narrow. Once again, they did not schedule an opponent east of the Wasatch Mountain Range; their only non-conference date was against NAIA powerhouse California Baptist. Then again, volleyball's best is in the West, and coach Marv Dunphy has used the formula to amass the MPSF's best regular-season record (97-30, .763) in the rally-scoring era.
The MPSF's tallest starter, 6-11 Andy Hein, helps the Waves lead the league in team blocks (3.63 per game). Jonathan Winder, a 6-8 setter, is an efficient blocker, too. The concern is on the outside, where primary passers Tanner Sutherland and Iolani grad Jon Grobe are locked in a season-long battle. "It's been a work in progress," Dunphy said.
LONG BEACH STATE
Seed: No. 4.
Record:21-9, 14-8 in MPSF.
Next: Hosts Brigham Young in Saturday's quarterfinals.
Outlook: For four seasons, the 49ers have been following the leader, setter Tyler Hildebrand, whose nine postseason starts are the most among active MPSF players. "Everything goes through Tyler," 49er coach Alan Knipe said. "Tyler brings almost a coach-like mentality to the court. He's just a great competitor. He loves being in the heat of the battle more than any other player I've coached."
Robert Tarr is a scoring machine, averaging 4.98 kills per game, and Duncan Budinger creates matchup problems. Budinger, who is one of the league's best middle blockers, also has been used at opposite this season. "He jumps really high, and he's tough to block," Knipe said.
When aligned at opposite, Budinger is a difficult obstacle for opposing left-side hitters. Also, the 49ers can run double-quick plays, in which Hildebrand can set rapid-fire to either the middle or outside. "We have a lot of options with him," Knipe said.
Seed: No. 5.
Record: 18-8, 14-8 in MPSF.
Next: Plays at Long Beach State in Saturday's quarterfinals.
Outlook: The Cougars are widely described as being physical (translation: athletic, forceful), led by power hitters in Ivan Perez; Yosleyder Cala, a 22-year-old freshman who defected from Cuba; and Victor "Bonesaw" Batista, a 26-year-old Dominican who earned his nickname from a character in "Spider-Man." That movie's signature line — "With great power comes great responsibility" — fits the Cougars, whose strengths are sabotaged by carelessness. Cala, at 6-8, can hammer shots over double blocks, but is a liability as a passer, particularly out of the back right. All three squander aces with missed serves. For some reason, Cala and Perez have difficulty being successful when they're in the same lineup.
Coach Tom Peterson said the Cougars have struggled for "team cohesion." As a result, they've lost four in a row, and gave away the right to host in the quarterfinals.
CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE
Seed: No. 6.
Record: 18-10, 13-9 in MPSF.
Next: Plays at Pepperdine in Saturday's quarterfinals.
Outlook: The Matadors had won 10 of 11, moving into contention for a host's berth, before losing to UC Irvine and UCLA last week. "I think the home team in this league has a big advantage," coach Jeff Campbell said. "The fact we're playing at Pepperdine, is an advantage for them."
The Matadors swept the Waves two weeks ago, but lost in five last month.
Outside hitter Cary Hanson appears to have recovered from a shoulder injury, enabling him to join Dan Rhodes (4.29 kills per game) and freshman Eric Vance (2.51) in the rotation.
"When we serve and pass well, we're successful," Campbell said. "When we don't, we're not."
Seed: No. 7.
Record: 20-12, 12-10 in MPSF.
Next: Hosts UC Santa Barbara in today's play-in match.
Outlook: Matt Wade, son of former Rainbow Wahine Rocky Elias, was expected to serve an apprenticeship this season, then take over as setter next year. But senior Dennis Gonzalez suffered a high-ankle sprain against UH, opening the way for Wade. "He's grown up," coach Al Scates said. "We knew he was a blue-chipper when we brought him in. He needed time to develop. (Gonzalez's) injury gave him the time."
Wade has led the Bruins to eight consecutive victories. In the past six matches, UCLA is hitting .394.
Opposite attacker Steve Klosterman, who was on a swing count while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, has fully recovered. Klosterman's good health allowed Damien Scott to move back to the left side. Scott, outside hitter Paul George and David Russell are powerful servers.
The Bruins have experienced reserves. Outside hitter Sean O'Malley, middle blocker Jamie Diefenbach and, of course, Gonzalez have started this season.
UC SANTA BARBARA
Seed: No. 8.
Record: 13-15, 9-13 in MPSF.
Next: Plays at UCLA in today's play-in match.
Outlook: The Gauchos have imploded since the nation's kill leader, opposite Evan Patak, was declared academically ineligible two weeks ago. Patak averaged 5.88 kills per game, and received nearly 80 percent more sets than any other teammate. "Evan dropped the ball," coach Ken Preston said. "He was very irresponsible."
Patak's immediate backup, Derek Otte, is suffering from a hip injury. "We've been robbing Peter to pay Paul," Preston said of the lineup shifts.
Reach Stephen Tsai at email@example.com.