UCLA women’s volleyball both began and ended its season in the Pac-12 against USC.
But the second time around, the Bruins beat the Trojans.
No. 17 UCLA (19-10, 12-8 Pac-12) rounded out the regular season against then-No. 13 USC (22-9, 14-6) on Saturday, having won six of its last eight matches and winning the past three in straight sets.
This season brought much uncertainty for UCLA, as it had to rely on a roster filled with new players.
“We have one returning starter from last year who’s playing their normal position,” said coach Michael Sealy. “All these other teams that are returning their whole lineups from the year before, they’ll get linearly better. But for us, every little thing we do is going to make us exponentially better.”
The one returning starter, senior outside hitter Reily Buechler, leads the Bruins on the year with 364 kills and 3.4 kills per set. As a senior, she has taken on the role of a leader for the team, along with senior setter Sarah Sponcil.
“I knew coming into this year it was going to be difficult for leadership, and (Sponcil) has shown the most incredible leadership,” Buechler said. “Like we say every single day in practice, if we can keep the energy going on our side, we do really well.”
Sponcil was a fresh face for the Bruins, but has become the commander of the offense, tallying 1,206 assists on the season and ranking second in the Pac-12 with 11.27 assists per set.
UCLA has depended on other new additions this season in freshmen opposite Mac May and outside hitter Jenny Mosser. The two have totaled over 570 combined kills this year.
“They’re key players,” Buechler said earlier in the season. “They have a good attitude, and if they’re not playing well, they know how to bounce back, which is awesome.”
Although much of the Bruins’ strengths have been in their younger players, their inexperience has led them to struggle with errors. May and Mosser are second and third for UCLA in service errors this season in conference play, with 28 and 26 respectively. Too many service and reception errors were often the reason for losses this season, Sealy said.
Another weakness for the Bruins has been having a negative mentality throughout matches.
“We felt disappointed that things weren’t going our way,” Sponcil said, following a loss against Washington State earlier this season. “Instead of just shaking if off and getting back to the next play, we kind of broke down.”
Despite errors and moments of low energy, the Bruins won over half of their Pac-12 matches due to their versatile offense and strong defense. Five players have recorded triple-digit kills on the season and UCLA leads the conference in digs per set with 16.93.
Now that Pac-12 play has ended, UCLA will begin its run in the NCAA Tournament as the No. 15 seed, facing Austin Peay at home Friday.
“I think that we’re just a more developed team now in this part of the season,” Buechler said. “We’re really focused in practice, trying to get after it now that we’re going into the tournament.”