For a volleyball team with a .500 record overall and in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play, UC Irvine is experiencing an uneven season.
"It’s been a little more up and down," said UCI coach John Speraw, whose Anteaters host Hawaii tonight and tomorrow in Bren Events Center.
Speraw was admittedly surprised when the Anteaters were No. 2 in the preseason rankings.
"I thought that was way too high," Speraw said, a suspicion supported when the Anteaters lost the season opener to the NAIA’s top-ranked team, California Baptist.
What’s more, a key injury impacted the Anteaters’ ability to efficiently start their quick-to-the-pins offense.
But libero Will Montgomery is back from an injury, and opposite attacker Carson Clark is back to above normal.
"The process hasn’t always been smooth," Speraw said, "but we’re starting to play better volleyball."
The Anteaters’ improvement has coincided with a more active defense, which was boosted by Montgomery’s return.
"We weren’t playing particularly polished defense," Speraw said. "Balls were dropping. People didn’t know exactly what their roles were. (Montgomery has) made a difference for us. He’s vocal. He’s experienced. He’s made the easy plays that weren’t so easy for us. It’s refreshing to see."
Clark missed fall training while working out with the U.S. national team. There were greater expectations, many self-imposed, when he rejoined the Anteaters.
"He learned to manage expectations," Speraw said, noting that as a national-team member "everyone expects you to be unstoppable.
"That’s not the case. There are good players in the MPSF who can put up good blocks. He’s adjusted, and he’s playing some good volleyball. When he’s rolling, that’s good for us, and he’s starting to roll."
Clark is averaging 4.54 kills per set. Left-side hitter Cory Yoder does not have a swing as powerful as Clark’s, but manages to score points with a variety of shots.
The Anteaters have five capable middles, and the best blocker — Austin D’Amore, a 6-foot-5 junior — recently received medical clearance. Speraw said he has not decided if D’Amore will be in tonight’s lineup. D’Amore would force UCI to choose between Scott Kevorken, a 6-foot-9 freshman who has played in every match this season, and Kevin Wynne, who was named to the All-America second team in 2009, at the other middle position.
For now, Speraw said, both teams consider this an important series. The Anteaters are 5-5 in the MPSF. The Warriors, who split with UCLA in the first half of this four-match road trip, have a 4-4 league record.
"The MPSF is unforgiving, especially this year, when I think there are a lot of senior players, particularly at the setter position," Speraw said. "It’s a pretty talented league. … There are a lot of teams battling (for a playoff berth). It’ll be a battle until the end."