UCLA women’s volleyball met – but could not exceed – expectations on its way to a round-of-eight finish in the NCAA Tournament.
The return of UCLA’s entire offense, along with two new offensive standouts Kylie Miller and Torrey Van Winden, generated optimism among FloVolleyball and PrepVolleyball, who listed UCLA at sixth in their pre-season rankings.
Coach Michael Sealy took the greater half of the season to test out different formations before eventually finding the best fit for this year’s squad.
“We always put our best team out there. The team that’s playing the best for us, whatever’s working for us we put out there,” Sealy said. “We don’t make changes based on personnel across the net.”
It was enough for a 27-7 overall record and a win over the University of North Carolina in the round of sixteen, but not to ultimately reach Ohio.
No. 2 seed Minnesota (29-4) stifled UCLA from continuing on to the final four of the NCAA Tournament after taking the Bruins down in three straight sets.
The team will lose standout players like senior pin hitter Jordan Anderson, who held a shorter run as a Bruin after transferring from West Virginia. Anderson said that the ball has been much more spread out this year compared to last, when she out-hit the rest of the team by 144 kills.
The varied offense proved to be a valuable weapon, particularly in two games against Stanford, who will face Minnesota in the semifinals Thursday. This year marks the first time that the Bruins have beaten the Cardinal since 2011 – and they managed to do it twice in one season.
“We’ve done a lot of really good things – but (that night) was the first night that showed me a fifth gear we probably haven’t shown yet against a really, really good team,” Sealy said after beating Stanford a second time.”We had to dig deeper and be consistently good for longer stretches of time tonight more so than any other match.”
The Bruins will lose senior middle blockers Jennie Frager and Claire Felix, who were first and second on the team in blocking.
“This is a really special team. So it meant the world to me and the rest of the seniors to survive another day.” Felix said after the win over the Tar Heels.
The Bruins are saying goodbye to their biggest defensive asset, senior libero and team captain Taylor Formico, who was named the Pac-12 Conference Libero of the Year for two consecutive seasons.
The team collected five All-Region awards for Formico, Frager, Anderson, Van Winden and junior pin hitter Reily Buechler, which is tied for the most in school history with the 1989 team.
Redshirt junior setter Ryann Chandler announced that she will forgo her final year of academic eligibility and not return to next year’s squad.
Despite the instrumental members of this year’s team wrapping up their final season, the Bruins retain many players to fill the holes left by the graduating seniors. Sophomore Zana Muno will be a versatile asset for next year’s rotation.
“Zana was always that great utility kid that could do everything,” Sealy said at the beginning of the season. “She’s passed for us in practice, she’s hit on the right side, and she can play libero as well.”
Van Winden collected the third most kills on the team in her debut season. The rookie was one of the two players to play all six rotations.
“That girl steps up every day,” Anderson said of Van Winden. “We have way more hitters now that we’re all settled in. I think that’s helped everybody all around.”
Van Winden earned All-Pac-12 First Team and Pac-12 All-Freshman Team awards, as well as two Freshman of the Week awards and one Offensive Player of the Week honor.
Miller filled the other half of the two-setter rotation with Chandler to run UCLA’s offense this year, notching a season-high 35 assists against Washington State in September and returning next year with a year’s worth of experience under her belt.
One of the main returners she will be setting to is Buechler, who did not sit out a single set in 2016. The pin hitter led the team in kills with a total of 428, and reached the 1,000-kill mark in her UCLA career against Arizona State.
“(Buechler)’s been doing it for a long time,” Sealy said. “It’s her third NCAA Tournament and she’s been in three Sweet 16 matches now – she’s got experience.”
Sealy will once again face the task of integrating a new set of recruits with his returning base next year.