UCLA and UC Irvine’s men’s volleyball share similar rankings, but coach John Speraw said the teams are in two different places.
“We’re still trying to figure out what lineup we’re going with, and (UC Irvine has) been able to figure it out over the last 10 matches and win a lot of them,” Speraw said.
The No. 6 Bruins (17-9, 10-8 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) will play the No. 5 Anteaters (19-6, 13-5) Saturday in the quarterfinal of the MPSF tournament to open postseason play.
Last weekend’s two losses to the Rainbow Warriors decreased the likelihood that the Bruins will contend for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. UCLA’s remaining opportunity to vie for a national title is to secure the MPSF’s automatic bid through winning the MPSF tournament.
“If we lost we’re done no matter where we are – we’re not getting the at-large bid,” said senior libero/outside hitter Jackson Bantle. “We’re going into that game with the mindset to play every point like it’s our last point.”
UCLA swept Irvine Jan 12, but the Anteaters took the rematch Feb 24 in five sets. Speraw stressed Irvine’s improvement from the beginning of the season and how that will pose a challenge for the Bruins over the weekend.
“I think the inclusion of Aaron Koubi into their lineup and his development over the course of the latter part of the season makes them a better team than the team we faced the previous two times,” Speraw said.
Koubi, a junior outside hitter, joined Irvine’s starting lineup midway through the season and has been averaging 3.02 kills per set, good for second on the team behind senior opposite Tamir Hershko’s 3.22.
Senior middle blocker MItch Stahl said the unique serving style of various players for Irvine poses a challenge for UCLA’s serve-receive passing.
“Their lefty, (Michael) Saeta, buries the ball all over the court,” Stahl said. “Their middles serve very strategically. They have some special tendencies that they do to try and serve on certain players. We know that going in, so we’re just trying to simulate that in practice.”
On the other side of the net, the Bruins are still struggling to find their serving rhythm. A lack of serving consistency has plagued UCLA this season, and the team most recently missed a season-high 31 serves in Saturday’s four-set loss to Hawaii.
“(Serving) has kind of been our Achilles’ heel,” Bantle said. “When we make our serves we end up doing a lot better – our hitting’s better, our passing’s better, everything.”
Because the MPSF tournament is single-elimination, Saturday’s match could be the Bruins’ last of the season. Stahl said he tries not to think about how it could also be his last for UCLA.
“It’s definitely a reality, it’s something that I’ve got to come to grips with, but I don’t plan on doing that at Irvine,” Stahl said. “I’m going into it like it’s just another playoff match, and we’ve got to win.”