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Irvine claims NCAA crown

UC Irvine's Aaron Harrell celebrates the Anteaters' NCAA volleyball championship after their victory over the IPFW Mastodons Saturday.
UC Irvine's Aaron Harrell celebrates the Anteaters' NCAA volleyball championship after their victory over the IPFW Mastodons Saturday.
Jay Laprete, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — It's the year of the snout in NCAA men's volleyball.

UC Irvine's Anteaters blended their power game with great defense to beat IPFW 3-1 Saturday and win their first volleyball national championship.

Matt Webber was selected the tournament MVP, but don't try telling him he's any more valuable than any of the other Anteaters.

"MVP to me means, I don't know, it doesn't mean much," the 6-foot-7 senior said. "We did it. We played as a team. For one guy to stand out doesn't make much sense. We're a bunch of nobodies if we don't play together."

The second-seeded Anteaters (29-5) won by scores of 30-20, 24-30, 30-23 and 30-28, extending their school record for wins in a season. IPFW — an acronym representing the 12,000-student school's relationships with Indiana and Purdue universities and its hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. — finished at 23-8.

Two years after a 9-20 season, the Anteaters — led by seniors Webber, Jayson Jablonsky, David Smith and Brian Thornton— are on top.

"People have asked me about how the five-year plan was done," said John Speraw, 99-59 in five years as head coach. "It was done when we recruited these four guys. I learned more from them than they've learned from me. It's been my great pleasure to work with them."

Even though IPFW was playing in its sixth final four and Irvine its second in a row, neither school had ever played in a men's volleyball title game before. This was the closest the Mastodons had come to a national crown of any kind. The Anteaters had won three water polo championships, the last coming in 1989.

Irvine started its season by playing exhibitions at Ohio State, partly to test themselves against the highly ranked Buckeyes but mostly to scout out where the national championship would be held. Speraw, who had won championships as a UCLA player in 1993 and 1995, said the goal was to finish the season at St. John Arena and win it all.

Second-team All-Americans Webber and Jablonsky led the way with 22 and 18 kills, respectively. Taylor Wilson had eight digs, first-team All-American Smith had four blocks and second-teamer Thornton had 59 assists.

"It's all kind of surreal now," Thornton said after the victory.

Once again, the West was best. In the tournament's 38 years, only one school not from the West — Penn State in 1994 — has won the title. Tiny Lewis University, a Division II school in Romeoville, Ill., won the 2003 championship but that was later vacated for using ineligible players.

C.J. Macias led the way for the Mastodons with 21 kills. Josh Stewart had 10 blocks and Jason Yhost and Macias each had eight digs. Colin Lundeen had 53 assists.

The first game wasn't much of a game. UCI rolled to leads of 5-1, 10-4, 18-10 and 22-14 on the way to the 30-20 rout. The Anteaters were nearly flawless with few unforced errors, while Webber and Jablonsky each had six kills.

"Their offense was a little more steady than ours," IPFW coach of 27 years, Arnie Ball, said. "To their credit, they touched and dug a lot of balls and made a lot of good swings. And we didn't."

The Mastodons shrugged off the lopsided loss, however, scoring the first three points of game two and never trailing. The Anteaters drew to within three points three times late in the game but each time IPFW had an answer. Macias had three digs and six kills, Colin Lundeen had 16 assists and Josh Stewart added five blocks.

"They came out fired up," Macias said of the Anteaters. "Maybe they thought we'd roll over after that first game."

Hundreds of Mastodon fans made the 150-mile trip from Fort Wayne, many wearing national championship T-shirts that said, "Where is IPFW now?"

The Anteaters returned to their power attack in the third game, with Webber (seven kills) and Jablonsky (five) leading the way.

"They're such a good team that when you make a few errors it's tough to get them back," Lundeen said.

The teams were never separated by more than a point until it was 20-18 in game four. Tied at 27-27, the Anteaters got kills from Smith and Webber. Lundeen's service error supplied the decisive point, touching off a wild celebration on the court.

"That last point was like a dream I was watching," he said.