UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – It was the comeback of the decade, and then it wasn’t.
On Thursday night, UCLA men’s volleyball started right where it left off all of three months ago: playing a solid match against the same Ohio State team that it defeated back in January in the exact same gym.
After the first set, however, things changed.
The No. 3 seed Buckeyes took the next two sets decisively, but the No. 2 seed Bruins battled back to force a fifth set. And that last set – what ultimately became the final set of the season for UCLA – is what truly defined the match.
The first eight points saw the Bruins take control, gaining an 8-5 lead at one point before a controversial lift call turned the tide.
“We hit the ball and they called it a lift,” said coach John Speraw. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That one call gave the Buckeyes an opportunity, allowing them to fight back all the way to the end. The Bruins had chances of their own, namely three match points in which they were unable to close the book.
So Ohio State did it for them on a service ace by sophomore outside hitter Nicolas Szerzen, who was named American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year just days earlier.
Despite the five-set loss, Thursday’s match was a good barometer for how far both teams had come.
Sophomore outside hitter Jake Arnitz truly came into form over the course of the season and showed it again Thursday, leading the team with 18 kills.
The Bruins, too, displayed their balanced offensive attack with three other players posting double-digit kills. Freshman setter/hitter Micah Ma’a pulled close with eight.
“It’s really nice having the guys we have,” said junior setter Hagen Smith. “I feel, when I’m setting, there’s no real weaknesses. It’s nice having good hitters around you.”
In the end, the Bruins performed better than the Buckeyes across the board but it just wasn’t enough to send them to the national championship against the BYU Cougars.
“You look at this box score and we out-blocked them, out-dug them, we out-hit them overall,” Speraw said. “And to still lose the match is obviously exceptionally frustrating.”
Despite the loss, the outlook for the program remains bright and veteran middle blocker Mitch Stahl said the team is proud of what it accomplished.
“It’s been 10 years since UCLA has been on this run,” the junior said. “So at the end of the day, I can be extremely proud of what my teammates and I have accomplished this year.”