Coach John Speraw and company began their 2012 season tonight by dismantling Cal Baptist 3-0. Kevin Carroll led the way with 11 kills while Jeremy Dejno and Carson Clark both chipped in eight kills. As usual, Speraw has brought in an impressive recruiting class, and the Anteaters expect to contend for their third national title in six years. UCI was picked to finish second in the MPSF preseason poll  behind BYU this year. A quick glance at this year’s squad and their chances after the jump.

Outlook: Last year’s team was a relatively young and inexperienced group that faced a steep learning curve before finally gelling late in the season. This year looks to be a more experienced group, despite the departure of seniors Cory Yoder, Jordan DuFault and Anthony Spittle. The team’s all-important setter position seems relatively established with sophomore Daniel Stork. It’s also Clark’s last chance to prove that he can step it up in the big games and end his UCI career the same way he started it–with a national championship.

Carson Clark looks to add another national championship to his resume before going to play professionally.

Key Returners: Stork and Clark in particular will be huge at the setter and opposite positions. Also important: the talented and versatile short-shorts wearing Carroll, sophomore stud Dejno, block specialist Dan McDonnell, and fiesty libero Will Thomas. These six along with key subs Scott Kevorken and Will Montgomery all played significant roles last season, and should be able to transition seamlessly this year. In addition, senior middle blocker Austin D’Amore figures to return completely healthy after injuring his ankle a year ago. D’Amore was a main contributor as a freshman and sophomore. Promising redshirt sophomore Connor Hughes also returns after sitting out last season.

Newcomers: Coach Speraw is excited about this year’s recruiting class, although how much playing time each player sees is still very much up in the air. Junior college transfer Chris Austin will back up Stork at the setter position. 6’6″ outside hitter Kevin Tillie was the only newcomer that the UCI website mentioned in their season preview. A native of France and transfer from Canada’s Thompson Rivers University, Tillie is another example of the connections UCI’s coaching staff has worldwide. I’m guessing that if UCI Athletics felt the need to mention him, he may be a contributor sooner than later. Freshmen Michael Brinkley, Kyle Russell, Zach La Cavera, and Jason Agopian all boast impressive accolades themselves, but I’m guessing most of them will redshirt due to the surplus of upperclassmen blocking them from substantial playing time.

Both Travis Woloson and Colin Mehring aren’t technically newcomers, but both will likely see more playing time this season. Woloson redshirted last season while Mehring only got into one match last year after redshirting in 2010. Ian Castellana is in a similar situation.

New Coach: Replacing former assistant coach David Kniffin who departed for the Illinois women’s team is Andrea Becker. Becker comes to UCI from Cal State Fullerton where she was a Professor of  Sport Psychology. Becker’s background appears to lie more  in sports psychology and the mental side of sports rather than volleyball–her own playing days were as a softball middle infielder at Sacramento State. Definitely an interesting hire by Speraw in more ways than one. He continues to heavily value the mental side of the game and a once again shows a willingness to go above and beyond the beaten track.

Key Departures: Yoder, DuFault, Spittle, and Kevin Wynne to graduation. Libero John Caroompas III and setter Ian Wynne both seem to have left the team as well. Wynne appeared to be the setter of the future as a freshman, but saw little time last year. Caroompas was a BYU transfer that only stayed at UCI for  one season.