For coach Michael Sealy, it’s a different year but the same story.
Last year, his team went on a Cinderella-like run to capture the national championship. This year, his team enters the NCAA tournament under the burden of lofty expectations.
“(There’s) no difference. (No.) 9 seed (last year), (No.) 7 seed (this year), up-and-down seasons ““ all the same stuff,” Sealy said.
But for the Bruins, who begin NCAA tournament play Friday against the Long Island University Brooklyn Blackbirds (25-7), much will have to change if they are to repeat as national champions.
Despite defeating No. 4 USC (27-5, 15-5 Pac-12), 3-1, on Friday, No. 7 UCLA (22-7, 14-6) had yet another slow start. The Bruins have dropped the first set for the sixth time in nine games against ranked opponents ““ a season-long trend the team has yet to buck.
“Sometimes it just takes us a while to get in a groove … but we can’t let that happen now, especially because we’re going into the postseason (and) it’s crunch time,” said junior outside hitter Kelly Reeves .
UCLA was just 2-4 in those six games, and in a single-elimination tournament, another slow start could derail its championship hopes.
These slow starts, however, are the only area the Bruins have shown consistency in this season.
Sealy has gone back and forth between freshman setter Becca Strehlow and sophomore setter Megan Moenoa, as both have struggled to maintain a high level of play for a long period of time.
UCLA will need both players to maintain steady play, as Sealy will continue to rotate the two in the playoffs.
“They’ve been competing (against each other) all year and now’s the time they have to … compete with everyone, our team, and help each other,” Reeves said.
The Bruins’ defensive intensity has also been unpredictable, propelling them to hard-fought wins against top teams like USC and Washington but sinking them with lackluster efforts against other teams like Oregon and Stanford.
“Having had our losses, we have had to struggle and we know what it’s like. And after the (win over) USC, we know we’re still a good team and that we can do it (again),” said sophomore middle blocker ZoÃ« Nightingale .
A year ago, nobody expected UCLA to shed the inconsistencies it had shown all season come playoff time.
Now, it’s assumed, and the Bruins won’t surprise anyone.
“There’s a target on us now. We’re the national champs,” Nightingale said.
For the Bruins, it’s a different story, but they’re just pushing for the same ending.