Building a reputation on toughness and endurance is never an easy task. Just ask the UCLA women’s volleyball team. After back-to-back defeats, it seems to have finally found its identity as a never-say-die squad.
While recounting last weekend’s four-set defeat to then-No. 3 Stanford, junior libero Lainey Gera described how other teams in the league are responding to the Bruins’ gritty style.
“After Stanford, one of the coaches came up to me and was like, “˜You guys just don’t go away, do you? You guys are always right there, and you are so annoying to us,’” Gera said with a smile.
The Bruins’ four-match win streak was snapped last weekend after consecutive losses to Stanford and No. 2 Cal. But the fact that they stretched sets out and pushed Cal to a decisive fifth set has the No. 10 Bruins (17-7, 7-6 Pac-10) thinking positively about their game and accepting their new identity.
“We want to be that team where everyone says, “˜OK, these people are so annoying; can they just lay down and die?’ And we won’t … it’s good to hear,” Gera said.
Now, this confident Bruin team will get to play familiar Pac-10 opponents when it hosts Arizona State (11-14, 5-7) tonight and No. 20 Arizona (18-7, 7-5) Saturday at Collins Court in the Wooden Center.
The Bruins had a weekend split the last time they played the Arizona schools. The loss didn’t come from a nationally ranked Wildcat team, but from the lowly Sun Devils in a match in which the Bruins were looking to pad their record.
The Bruins were without junior setter Lauren Van Orden then, though both teams will be at full strength this time around.
The Sun Devils could pose some matchup problems for the Bruins tonight, with a knack for earning victories on the defensive side of the net. Junior middle blocker Sonja Markanovich boasts the conference’s fifth-best overall blocking rate with 1.16 per set and helps make up a solid blocking unit.
The Bruins will have to rely on outside hitters such as senior Dicey McGraw and sophomore Bojana Todorovic to get around the big Sun Devil front. Both have been getting the job done for the Bruins lately. McGraw set a career high in kills against Cal last week with 24 and Todorovic recorded a double-double, getting 14 kills and 10 digs in the same match.
The loss to Arizona State a month ago seems to have coach Mike Sealy curious as to how this weekend’s events will unfold.
“There’s no way to gauge it. We didn’t run our offense against their defense (last match) so I’m not sure how that matchup is going to work. … You just can’t tell,” Sealy said.
All season long, Arizona has been close to winning big matches and recently has shown it is hungry for wins. The Wildcats are riding a four-match win streak, highlighted by a three-set sweep of then-No. 20 Oregon.
Against a healthy Sun Devil team and a resurgent Wildcat squad, the Bruins will have to rely on their newfound identity if they are to finish strong down the stretch.
“We have to be strong all the time and battling to win all the time,” freshman middle blocker Mariana Aquino said. “It doesn’t matter which team it is.”