Collegiate men’s volleyball has always been a West Coast sport and, in many ways, it certainly remains so, but there’s a change emerging within the sport. Schools nationwide are becoming perennial contenders that fight the Pacific powerhouses for national titles.
It took 25 years for an East Coast school to capture a national title after the NCAA instituted a volleyball championship tournament in 1970, but four of the past eight champions have been Midwest or Eastern schools – a trend that continues to shift the dynamic of the sport.
With that said, nearly two-thirds of the top 15 teams in the preseason AVCA rankings still reside in the West, and the two regions will collide this week as the Bruins travel across the country to face a trio of those ranked teams in their season-opening road series.
The trip will start Tuesday afternoon in Fairfax, Virginia, where No. 5 UCLA visits No. 14 George Mason. While the Patriots will offer their own challenge on the court, it’s the daunting travel that is on the minds of the Bruins.
“Any time you fly back East – which we don’t do very often in volleyball – we’re dealing with a little bit of jet lag, a change of weather, being in a gym where I don’t think UCLA has been in in 30 years,” said coach John Speraw. “George Mason will be particularly tough because we have such a quick turnaround. They have a new coach so they’ll be playing with a lot of energy.”
Speraw added that the Patriots are returning a lot of players, as coach Jay Hosack’s team is a junior-heavy squad led by redshirt junior outside hitter Jack Wilson and junior outside hitter Radoslav Popov. The match will be the first of the season for George Mason, and UCLA’s first regular season competition after sweeping British Columbia in an exhibition Sunday.
“The perk of it is that it’s early on in the quarter so we’re not going to be hammered with midterms and stuff at the same time,” said junior middle blocker Mitch Stahl. “We’re playing against three really good teams – we don’t have a lot of film on all of them but we’ll have to adjust on the fly.”
Coach Speraw said after the exhibition match that he thinks the 2016 team is better than the previous year’s, attributing an offensive outburst to improved ball control and setting. The opening road trip will allow him to continue evaluating his new squad while he adjusts lineups early in the season to see different rotations work.
Freshman libero Davis Gillett stood out in Sunday’s match for his defensive effort, garnering the postgame praise of Stahl, and could find himself in a consistent role going forward. Offensively, freshman setter/hitter Micah Ma’a continued to show the promise that garnered him votes in Off the Block’s preseason All-America honors. A highly-touted recruit, Ma’a offers a possibility for stability at setter – a position of turmoil in 2015 for the Bruins.
With only an exhibition game under its belt, UCLA’s season will kick into full gear almost immediately. The team left Southern California on Monday morning.
“A little bit of jet lag will be a (challenge),” Gillett said. “But the team is really focused on getting there, getting the job done and winning these three matches. We just gotta do what we need to do.”