From UCLA to the Olympics, now back to UCLA for Speraw

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USA coach John Speraw celebrates his team's Rio Olympics quarterfinal victory over Poland/FIVB photo

There really is no down time for John Speraw.

From the UCLA men to the Olympics and, now, back to the NCAA men’s season.

Speraw was in Columbus, Ohio, both as a presenter at the AVCA Convention and also to spread the word about a new venture in which he’s involved that hopes to boost men’s volleyball in America.

After the Olympics, he said, “I got the opportunity to go to Montana for a couple of weeks to tune out and really it was the first time in my career that I needed it. The Olympic experience, it’s hard to explain, but it’s the most emotionally engaging, challenging, stressful, pressure-induced, exhilarating I’ve ever had in sport.”

The USA men won the bronze medal in Rio, pretty unlikely after getting swept by Canada and losing to Italy to open the tournament before beating Brazil, France and Mexico to get out of pool play. Then the USA beat Poland in the quarterfinals before losing to Italy in five in the semifinals. Speraw’s team capped the Olympics by beating Russia in five to win the bronze medal.

“I’ve just never seen anything like it, from watching how my players played to how our opponents played. Everybody gives literally everything they have every time on the court. And of course our journey was so challenging in that we went down 0-2 and had to come back and beat Brazil and France just to stay in the tournament. It took a ton of emotional resolve from all of us and I had to shoulder my part of that.

“So, yeah, I needed a break when it was all over.”

John Speraw and USA executive director Doug Beal enjoy a victory in Rio/FIVB photo
John Speraw and USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal enjoy a victory in Rio/FIVB photo

But when that break was over, the it was time to debrief after the Olympics and get back to UCLA.

“There were a lot of lessons that were learned from the Olympic Games, which was good. It was such a unique experience,” he said. It’s the only tournament where we play every other day in that kind of environment.”

Speraw and his staff documented it all, and not just the Rio Games.

“It turned into a quad review,” Speraw said, “and then there’s the strategic plan we need to put into place for the next four years. That ended up coming into play this fall. I got those two weeks off but then I got back to recruiting at UCLA and I got back to organizing for the next quad for the USA.”

He laughed.

“Like everybody else in America I work 50 weeks a year and get a couple of weeks off.”

The men’s college season gets under way in earnest next week and the Bruins were picked to finish second in both the AVCA national preseason poll (behind Ohio State) and in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (behind BYU). BYU is No. 3 in the AVCA.

Last year, UCLA lost to Ohio State in the NCAA semifinals. The Buckeyes then went on to upset top-ranked BYU in the title match. The Bruins open play at Loyola in Chicago on January 3.

The MPSF poll, Speraw said, “is pretty accurate.

“BYU was a better team than we were last year. They beat us three times and they’re returning most of their starting lineup. We’re returning all of our starting lineup, but they’re still physically a remarkable team and they’re going to be better. All those guys were in the USA gym this summer. I think BYU is a really special team. 

“And Long Beach. We were able to beat Long Beach last year, but every match was really close and they were incredibly young and talented and they return everybody, too. 

“So I think you’ll see all those teams beating each other up and I think the level of volleyball could be even better at the top end this year.

“I think a team like Hawai’i is going to be better and a team like Stanford could surprise and Irvine’s not going to have the issues they had last year and they’re going to be better and will be back in the mix. Pepperdine had two freshmen outside hitters that are going to get better and that team will be better. SC’s going to be better. I just think everybody’s going to be a little better.”

UCLA should be better, too. The Bruins boast one of the great young players in explosive sophomore setter/hitter Micah Ma’a, who also spent time in the USA gym.

“He’s a special volleyball talent and he’s an even better person,” Speraw said. “He provides a lot of leadership for our team. We get a lot of leadership from our team. (Senior setter) Hagan Smith can do it, (senior middle) Mitch Stahl provides a ton of it.

“We’ve had to mature a lot the way we play the game. We had some injuries in the fall and couldn’t practice the way I hoped, but I think we can be better than we were last year. And we have some freshmen talent that’s going to help us.”

The Bruins will count on 6-foot-10 junior middle Oliver Martin and also some potentially impact freshmen.

“But we have a kid Daenan Gyimah (a 6-8 middle) from Canada who’s really going to be a special player for us,” Speraw said. “Whether it’s his freshman year, I don’t know. He’s touching over 12 feet and had a really great fall. I think he’s going to be really impressive for us down the road.”

But even with the start of the UCLA season, there’s still energy devoted to the Olympic team with an eye on Tokyo 2020. Speraw said he, his staff and his players have given a great deal of thought on how to manage the next four years, including who trains how and who plays what and where.

He referred to “volume management” especially for older players like right side Matt Anderson “to make sure we’re peaking in Tokyo.”

Going into 2016, “Everybody knew things were changing. And when things are changing and you’re looking at the  world of elite volleyball, the margins are so thin. The level is so good and if you slip a little bit, it’s hard to win. And I think there was a lot of uncertainty if we would win. And certainly some uncertainty if we would qualify for the Olympic Games.

“So for us to have the quad we had, where we won a World League, won a World Cup, medaled at the Olympics, with a group of young guys, it was an exceptional quad in my mind.”

Longtime veteran Reid Priddy has said he will retire from indoor, and middle David Lee has hinted he might call it quits, but Speraw said he’s not sure Lee won’t be back.

“Now we go into this quad with an almost entire different feeling. Because now instead of uncertainty you know you’ve invested this time in a young group of guys and you’re optimistic it could have some payoff.

“That being said, that very thought process could get you into trouble and we have to make sure that we know that we have a lot of room to improve. We’ve got to stay as focused and as disciplined in our training in this next quad. But mostly I’m excited because I love coaching the guys.”

Which Speraw credited for the comeback in Rio.

“They were great character guys and that’s what it all came down to.”

Speraw also is involved with a partner, Wade Garard, developing an organization devoted to the growth of men’s and boy’s volleyball. The future site will be www.motormvb.com. We’ll have more on that later this year.

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