Last year, the UCLA women’s volleyball team was the best it’s been since 2011 – its national championship season.
The 2016 Bruins swept conference rival Stanford Cardinal, who later won the NCAA title, and made it to the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament.
But six seniors have graduated, all of who had essential roles on last year’s team.
“It’s a clean slate,” said coach Michael Sealy. “It’s not about people filling for one person, it’s about starting from scratch and finding a whole new system to work with a whole new personnel.”
That new personnel includes eight new faces – seven freshmen and one senior – making the team split evenly between newcomers and returning players.
Last season, the Bruins ran a 6-2 offense with two setters and made countless lineup changes throughout the season.
“Last year, we definitely had that one pin hitter position that (was) interchangeable,” Sealy said. “I think our system is going to be much more traditional this year, where it’s a traditional 5-1 and everyone kind of has a specific role, much more so than last year.”
Sophomore Kylie Miller started at setter alongside then-redshirt junior Ryann Chandler last year, but Sealy said it looks like senior Sarah Sponcil will be getting the starting nod. Sponcil, a honorable mention All-American in 2016, played her first three seasons at Loyola Marymount before transferring to UCLA for her final year of eligibility.
“Sarah definitely is coming in and working her butt off,” said freshman pin hitter Mac May. “She is very confident and works so hard to run the systems and be a leader, and she’s taken on the role really well.”
Sealy added that he thinks it will be beneficial to the team to give Sponcil an opportunity to play in big matches and touch the ball every rally because of her three seasons of experience.
Freshman pin hitter Alexis Light has been injured in the preseason, leaving Sealy with three primary pin hitters. Senior Reily Buechler, freshman Jenny Mosser and May have been getting all the reps in practice thus far.
The addition of 6-foot-3 May and 6-foot-5 Light brings added size on the pins that lacked last season. Mosser, although only 5-foot-11, can touch 10-foot-6, making up for her size with athleticism.
“This team is more physical than teams we’ve had in the past, so it gives us some more left side options,” Sealy said. “It’s a nice upgrade in physicality up there.”
Although the Bruins do have three strong freshman pin hitters and veteran hitter Buechler, they will face the added challenge of the loss of last season’s freshman standout Torrey Van Winden, who transferred to Cal Poly, where her sister, Adlee, also plays volleyball.
UCLA graduated its two starting middle blockers, Claire Felix and Jennie Frager. Sealy said that he sees sophomore Madeleine Gates and junior Kyra Rogers as the starting middles because of their experience and physicality, but also that the two freshmen middles, Emily Ryan and Sabrina Smith, are looking impressive in practice as well. Rogers spent time at the pins last year but is back in the middle, the position she played in high school.
The largest remaining lineup question is in the one position that was never a question in 2016 – libero. The Bruins lost standout libero Taylor Formico, an All-American and two-time Pac 12 Libero of the Year.
“Losing a Formico, it’s not like you’re going to get one person to fill the void,” Sealy said. “It’s up to everyone out there to increase their ball control. So (junior) Zana Muno and (sophomore) Savvy Simo are two kids that are getting a lot of those defensive specialist options.”
Formico, along with the other seniors, was also a leader on the team, a role that Buechler is looking to fill as the lone senior other than Sponcil.
“I was always hoping that I’d be part of the leading role,” Buechler said. “It’s a lot more responsibility, but it’s fun being able to help everyone else out and let them know how to be a Bruin and do the right things.”
UCLA opens its season Friday against San Diego in the Texaco Rainbow Wahine Invitational and will proceed to play against Marquette and Hawai’i on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.