Injuries, inconsistency and some bad luck all contributed to the conclusion that it just was not UCLA men’s volleyball’s year.
No. 6 UCLA (17-10, 10-8 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) ended the year with a loss to No. 5 UC Irvine (20-6, 13-5) in the MPSF tournament quarterfinals – a far cry from last season’s close NCAA Final Four loss to Ohio State.
“I was really hoping to (win a national championship) by the fifth year,” said coach John Speraw, who started at UCLA in 2013. “But in the end I think we’ll look back on year four and be a little disappointed that we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to us then.”
A loss to UC Irvine, a highly-ranked team, in the playoffs and in the toughest conference in NCAA men’s volleyball isn’t usually an outcome over which teams are too distraught.
But the Bruins were looking for something more, especially given that the team returned every single starter from its Final Four run and brought in some of the top recruits in the country.
By every preseason measure, including a No. 2 ranking to open up the year, UCLA should have been better.
Failing to meet the lofty expectations placed upon the shoulders of Speraw and company isn’t necessarily the fault of any one individual, or group of individuals, but injury woes can certainly be singled out as the largest detriment to the team this season.
For much of the year, one or multiple starters were sidelined with injuries at any given moment.
The Bruins’ top offensive producer, junior outside hitter Jake Arnitz, broke his foot and sat out for crucial weeks
during which the team began its February slide, where they went 2-6.
Senior middle blocker Mitch Stahl missed time, twice, for injuries to his abdomen and leg. Even when he was on the court, Stahl played a large chunk of the season at sub-100 percent.
Former Freshman of the Year and Server of the Year sophomore opposite/setter Micah Ma’a missed the entire month of March with back issues, which also led to a decline in production from the service line.
Ma’a notched 27 service aces on the year, third on the team only behind Stahl’s 42 and sophomore outside hitter Dylan Missry’s 28, but still a long way from his record-setting 58 in the previous season.
And top-recruit freshman middle blocker Daenan Gyimah missed the final game of March and every game following that, through the end of the season, with a hand injury.
By the end of the year, the 6-2 rotation that had worked so well for the Bruins last season was sporadically used – and only when the personnel was available. And it actually turned out to be a detriment to team chemistry when injuries struck and the system transitioned to the 5-1.
“We definitely tried multiple different types of rotations throughout the year so it was hard to get one set offense and establish a perfect connection with everyone,” said redshirt junior middle blocker Eric Sprague. “Having two setters and running the 6-2 for much of the season means you get half the reps with each setter so it’s much harder to be perfect.”
These system and position changes had become common and necessary due to injuries and were patchwork solutions, but hampered UCLA from finding a groove throughout the season.
“It was definitely a different season from last year, ” said junior opposite Christian Hessenauer. “There were a lot more injuries and going in and out of the 6-2 and 5-1 … we just lost one too many matches and ended up in this boat.”
Even after missing time due to injury, Arnitz placed first on the team in kills with 239 on the year. And despite switching from outside hitter to libero late in the season, junior JT Hatch still managed to place third on the team in kills with 169 behind Missry’s 179.
Stahl also led the team in total blocks with 83 followed by Ma’a’s 65.
Next season, the Bruins will lose Stahl, setter/opposite Hagen Smith, libero/opposite Jackson Bantle and outside hitter Michael Fisher to graduation and possibly Sprague and redshirt junior middle blocker Oliver Martin as well.
“It really feels like it wasn’t meant to be this year,” Speraw said. “But we recruited well again, we’re returning a lot of really good players and I think we’re in a position to be in the top five most years and competing for some national championships down the road. It’s just a matter of time for the Bruins.”