All-American Tony Ciarelli, the naitonal player of the year, and USC will… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
After facing each other twice during the regular season and once in a conference tournament, there are no real mysteries between UC Irvine and USC.
An overwhelming feel of familiarity, therefore, will permeate Saturday's NCAA men's volleyball championship match at the Galen Center.
Irvine beat USC in January, lost to the Trojans in early April and then ended USC's 18-match winning streak last week with a five-set victory in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament semifinals.
"We made some chess moves in the last one and I know they know that," Irvine Coach John Speraw said Friday. "So what's the next move? Probably their move.
"What are they going to do? And how are we going to adapt?"
Irvine athletic administrators could be asking themselves a similar question if this turns out to be Speraw's final match with the Anteaters after 10 seasons. The former UCLA player and assistant led Irvine to NCAA titles in 2007 and 2009 and he is regarded as a top candidate to succeed Al Scates, who recently retired after completing his 50th season at UCLA.
Speraw also is U.S. national team assistant and is regarded as a leading candidate for the head coach position if that comes open.
Speraw acknowledges the speculation but has said that no offers have been tendered and that he and his players are focused solely on winning another title.
"We don't think about it," senior opposite hitter Carson Clark said. "We'll worry about that, hopefully, after we win."
Meantime, USC is trying to win its first championship since 1990.
Coach Bill Ferguson, in his sixth season, has guided the Trojans to title match for the second time in four years. Irvine defeated USC in five sets to win in 2009.
Ferguson and Speraw are friends, so it was with a veiled sense of good-natured gamesmanship that Ferguson said, "The pressure's all on Irvine. They were the team that was picked at the top of the league at the beginning of the year. They've got the golden child as the coach….For them not to win it would be pretty tough, probably a bit of a failure."
Clark and USC outside hitter Tony Ciarelli — who said he was recruited by every MPSF school except Irvine —- played in the 2009 title match. They, along with Irvine outside hitter Kevin Tillie and USC middle blocker Steven Shandrick, are marquee players expected to play prominent roles Saturday.
But it will be no surprise if less-heralded players decide the outcome.
In their last match, Irvine senior Kevin Carroll came off the bench and recorded 12 kills. The Anteaters defeated Penn State in a semifinal Thursday with fourth-game contributions from reserve setter Daniel Stork, who was a starter before suffering a midseason concussion, and serving specialist Will Montgomery.
USC held off Lewis in the semifinals with key performances from libero J.B. Green, who played in place on injured Henry Cassiday, and reserve opposite Maddison McKibbin.