RAINBOW WARRIOR VOLLEYBALL
Warriors open with the best in MPSF
UC Irvine is favored and is playing like it early in the season
It felt good, but it meant very little.
Such was John Speraw's reaction after his top-ranked UC Irvine team won last weekend's 43rd Elephant Bar Invitational men's volleyball tournament at UC Santa Barbara. The Anteaters (4-0) beat defending NCAA champion UCLA -- Speraw's alma mater -- for the tourney title in three.
"I'm happy we played well, but the team also has a clear understanding that winning a tournament in January isn't what's important," Speraw said. "It's winning the tournament in May that matters."
Who: No. 4 Hawaii (0-0) at No. 1 UC Irvine (4-0)
When: Tomorrow, 5 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
Fresh in the collective minds of the Anteaters is last May's NCAA tournament, where top-seeded UCI fell to host Penn State in five in the national semifinals. UCLA, the last team to qualify for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, won its 14th straight match -- and 19th national title -- when sweeping the Nittany Lions.
"Last May is very fresh in our minds," said Speraw, the MPSF and national coach of the year. "But we also know it's a new year. We're going to have to be better because everyone else is, too."
The Anteaters (4-0) open the MPSF tomorrow with No. 4 Hawaii (0-0). The Warriors left yesterday, hoping the flu bug that hit five starters was also left behind.
Speraw said several of his players were under the weather as well. "Could be the battle of the IVs," he jokingly said of tomorrow's match at the Bren Events Center. "We haven't seen Hawaii play, but we know they have some outstanding players returning, two All-Americans in their opposite (Lauri) Hakala and setter Brian (Beckwith). Those two would be a good starting point for any team."
Last season, Hawaii and UCI split their matches in Honolulu, the Anteaters winning in three the first night,
the Warriors in three the next. UH lost just one more match during the regular season, finishing second in the MPSF behind UCI.
The Anteaters went on to win their next 21 matches before losing to Long Beach State in the MPSF tournament semifinals. UCI was awarded the at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, its first final-four appearance.
Eight of the 12 MPSF teams were at last weekend's Elephant Bar Invitational, and Speraw saw most of them play.
"There's a lot of good teams out there, a lot of teams with upside," he said. "There are teams, like UOP, that won't win it all but they're going to pull off some upsets.
"You just don't know how it's all going to shake out."
A look at the teams, according to the MPSF preseason poll (last year's records in parenthesis):
1. UC Irvine (27-5, 20-2)
The Anteaters return four All-Americans, including senior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky, and sophomore libero Brent Asuka (Iolani '05), the national newcomer of the year.
Also back are two other senior All-Americans, setter Brian Thornton, the MVP of the Elephant Bar Invitational and reigning MPSF player of the week, and senior opposite Matt Webber. UCI has two returning All-MPSF middles in senior David Smith and junior Aaron Harrell.
The Anteaters opened with a 3-1 win over defending NAIA champion Cal Baptist followed by three victories -- all sweeps -- in Santa Barbara.
2. BYU (18-9, 14-8)
The Cougars had coach Tom Peterson unexpectedly resign for an unspecified reason in August and are under the direction of co-coaches Ryan Millar and Shawn Patchell, both of whom played on NCAA championship teams for BYU.
The Cougars downed Cal Baptist twice last week, led by the performances of three freshmen: setter Yamil Perez, opposite Robby Stowell and hitter Andrew Stewart. BYU should again be one of the most physical teams in the country, led by All-Americans Ivan Perez, a sophomore hitter, and senior middle Russell Holmes, the team captain.
Sophomore Yosleyder Cala has All-America potential but sat out the Cal Baptist matches after being suspended for a violation of team rules. He's expected back for this week's MPSF opener against UCLA.
3T. Hawaii (23-5, 19-3)
The Warriors return two All-Amercians in senior setter Brian Beckwith and senior opposite Lauri Hakala. Also back are All-MPSF senior middle Dio Dante and junior middle Kyle Klinger.
The question mark for Hawaii is passing, where the Warriors lost all three of their primary passers from last season, including second-team All-America libero Alfred Reft. Sophomore libero Mikey China looked good in last week's losses to UBC, but also making the trip to Irvine is freshman libero Ric Cervantes.
With flu-stricken junior hitter Jake Schkud not traveling, coach Mike Wilton may have to move Hakala over to the left and put freshman Steven Grgas at opposite. Other possibilities on the outside are senior Eric Kalima, sophomore Mark Ribeiro and freshmen Matt Vanzant and Ernie Vidinha.
The MPSF schedule is not kind to Hawaii, with the toughest matches expected to come on the road: at UCI, UCLA, BYU and Long Beach State.
3T. Pepperdine (17-8, 15-7)
The Waves return four starters from last year's team that finished third, led by senior hitter John Parfitt and sophomore hitter Paul Carroll. The two combined for 32 kills in Tuesday's season opener, a sweep of Cal Baptist.
Freshman Brett Hughes will have to fill in for all-conference setter Jonathan Winder for at least three more weeks. Winder injured his knee in a preseason tournament in Florida.
Back on the outside is senior Jon Grobe (Iolani '02).
3T. UCLA (25-12, 12-10)
The defending NCAA champions return 10 lettermen, including three starters, from a squad that won its last 14 matches.
Back are All-Americans Steve Klosterman, a senior opposite named the MVP of the NCAA tournament; senior hitter Paul George, team captain; and junior libero Tony Ker, Volleyball magazine's choice as defensive player of the year. Among those vying for starting setter are sophomore Matt Wade, son of former Hawaii All-American Rocky Elias Wade, and Tony Ker's younger brother Kevin, a true freshman.
Ageless coach Al Scates (1,135-212) is seeking his 20th NCAA title.
6. UCSB (13-16, 9-13)
Gauchos coach Ken Preston enters his 29th season with five starters back, including senior opposite Evan Patak, the MPSF kill leader last season (5.88 kpg). Patak missed the final five matches last year due to academic ineligibility; UCSB went 1-4 without him.
Shoring up the solid offense are senior outsides Bryan Berman and Aaron Richman, and junior middle Theo Brunner. Sophomore Max Klineman will again set.
7T. CS Northridge (18-11, 13-9)
The Matadors lost their main hitters from last season but should have plenty of firepower left. Junior hitter Isaac Kneubuhl (Kamehameha '03) and sophomore Eric Vance are expected to be the go-to guys early, especially with senior opposite Dan Rhodes out with an injury.
CSUN also lost its two main middles but do return senior James Lischer, who made the Elephant Bar all-tournament team. The Matadors got 20 kills from freshman opposite Theo Edwards when falling to host UCSB in the third-place match last Saturday.
7T. Lbsu (23-10, 14-8)
The 49ers will have to regroup after losing three All-Americans -- setter Tyler Hildebrand, middle Duncan Budinger and outside hitter Robert Tarr.
Freshman setter Conor Eaton helped The Beach to fifth place at the Elephant Bar Invitational. Surrounding him are solid returnees: senior middle Teddy Liles, junior hitter Phil Lotman and junior opposite Norm Hutton.
On the roster with Hawaii ties are freshman libero Kory Matsukado, who transferred from Kamehameha to California for his senior year, and freshman hitter Tommy Pestolesi, son of UH All-Americans Tom Pestolesi and Diane Sebastian Pestolesi.
9. USC (11-18, 7-15)
The Trojans have recruited well during the past few years and should make some noise under first-year coach Bill Ferguson. Back are five starters from last year, led by junior setter Jimmy Killian, sophomore hitter Juan Figueroa and sophomore opposite C.J. Schellenberg.
Freshman Troy Tokuhama (Iolani '06) is penciled in as the backup to sophomore libero Luke Morris.
10. Pacific (8-20, 6-16)
The Tigers have 11 returnees and six starters back, and will rely heavily on their foreign vets: senior hitter Andreas Baboulidis (Germany) and junior Pekka Seppanen (Finland).
Returning junior middle Simon Chen-Byerly led the team in blocks last year. UOP's top newcomer is Maor Nutkevitch, a 6-foot-6 hitter from Israel. Scot Kane (Kamehameha '06) is one of three talented freshmen vying for the starting libero spot.
11. Stanford (4-24, 2-20)
The Cardinal are not going to be at the bottom of the MPSF for long. First-year coach John Kosty has landed several of the nation's top freshmen, including setter/hitter Kawika Shoji (Iolani '06), who played both positions at last week's Elephant Bar Invitational.
"And he was great at both," UCI coach John Speraw said.
Stanford returns just one senior in libero Brian Lindberg. The Cardinal are likely a year away from seriously challenging in the MPSF; next year, Stanford will add all-state players Jordan Inafuku (Kamehameha '07) and Spencer McLachlin (Punahou '07), who both played with Shoji on the U.S. youth and junior national teams.
12. UC San Diego (2-27, 1-21)
The Tritons should again finish in last place as the only Division II team in the country's top conference.
Back are senior setter Brooks Dierdorff, junior middle Stephen Shaw and sophomore libero Eric Leserman. Two freshmen from Punahou are on the roster: opposite Matt Brown and Will Erhman, a hitter/libero.