It was a surreal moment when the ball hit the ground.
Time stood still for the Bruins, their arms frozen somewhere between clutching their heads and letting them fall in despair, unsure of how to react to a year’s worth of training and dreams disappearing in the blink of an eye.
With the loss to UC Irvine in Saturday’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinals match, the UCLA men’s volleyball team’s season came to an abrupt end, sending the squad’s lofty potential crashing to the ground alongside that final kill.
“I’m upset with the loss of course,” coach Al Scates said. “This team had a chance. Came close to their potential. Came close.”
UCLA entered the season with high hopes: Five of the six offensive starters were seniors and three returning players earned 2011 All-MPSF honors ““ redshirt senior quick hitter Weston Dunlap, senior quick hitter Thomas Amberg and sophomore outside hitter Gonzalo Quiroga.
With such a wealth of experience and talent, combined with the motivation to win one last title for the retiring Scates, the Bruins were pegged as one of the nation’s top teams, starting the season ranked No. 3.
For a team that seemed nearly unbeatable for the first half of the season, UCLA looked very vulnerable throughout the latter half.
The Bruins faced many tough opponents throughout their season, but none caused them more trouble than themselves.
After starting the season by winning 18 of the first 20 matches and sitting atop the national rankings for four weeks, the Bruins struggled with inconsistent energy in the season’s second half.
“When we’re playing together, we had it all together, but towards the end (of the season) we kind of just fell apart,” senior setter Kyle Caldwell said.
“We were No. 1 for a while and it kind of got to our heads and I thought we kind of lost our passion and energy and that kind of made us suffer for a little bit.”
It certainly didn’t help that their schedule got tougher just as their energy began slipping.
“At the end of the year, we had all the tough matches ““ BYU twice, at Stanford, ‘SC. Through the cupcake portion of the schedule we ran 10 wins in a row and got to No. 1,” Scates said.
“But when you’re playing a team that’s in the top 4 in the country back to back, your record isn’t going to be the same.”
Going just 4-6 in the final 10 games, the Bruins ended their season in stark contrast to how they started it.
Still, the Bruins found a silver lining in the team’s hard work and camaraderie through the haze of disappointment.
“I’m incredibly proud of everything that everyone on this team has done. Everybody put their heart and soul into it every second of everyday, coming into the gym at seven every morning,” senior opposite Nick Vogel said.
Scates was well aware of the effort his Bruins put into practice, and in the end, he has nothing but pride for his team.
“I just talked to the team and thanked them for their efforts,” Scates said after Saturday’s loss. “They worked hard. They worked very hard. They really raised their level of play this year.”
The growth can be seen by UCLA’s representation on this year’s All-MPSF team. Five Bruins were honored for their play this season.
The pieces were all there for the Bruins. Fitting them together was the problem.
Following that final kill Saturday night, the Bruins huddled at midcourt for one final moment of unity, arms raised and heads down.
A final moment to celebrate their work, their coach and their team. And one final moment to reflect on what could have been.