Halfway through the season, UCLA women’s volleyball coach Michael Sealy wasn’t sure his team was going to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
“There were no guarantees that we were going to make the tournament,” Sealy said. “This was a year when the Pac-12 returned everybody, except for us. So at one point we were 6-6 in the Pac-12, heading into November, thinking, ‘Man, we better wake up or we are not going to make the tournament.’”
No. 15 seed UCLA eventually managed a 21-11 overall record and a win over Cal Poly (27-3, 16-0 Big West) to reach the third round. The Bruins’ season ended when they fell to the No. 2 seed Florida (29-1, 17-1 SEC) Gators in four sets.
The Bruins graduated five seniors last year, including libero and team captain Taylor Formico, who was named the Pac-12 Libero of the Year for two consecutive seasons. UCLA also lost now-sophomore outside hitter Torrey Van Winden, who earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors as a Bruin but subsequently transferred to Cal Poly.
However, UCLA’s 2017 class of recruits was ranked third in the nation and included freshman outside hitters Jenny Mosser and Mac May. Ranking ninth among conference players in aces per set, May recorded 33 service aces, adding 2.68 kills per set. Mosser had 16 double-figure kills contests including a season-high 28 kills at Colorado.
Another addition to the team is senior setter Sarah Sponcil, who transferred from Loyola Marymount. Sponcil finished second in the Pac-12 with 11.23 assists per set, earning herself an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention.
Junior middle blocker Kyra Rogers and sophomore middle blocker Madeleine Gates stepped up to fill in the positions left open by graduated players Claire Felix and Jennie Frager. Gates is first on the team with 1.23 blocks per set and surpassed a .400 hitting percentage in 11 matches. Rogers posted an overall .276 hitting percentage and 81 blocks this season.
Formico’s defensive void was filled by junior and sophomore defensive specialists Zana Muno and Savvy Simo, who recorded 537 and 302 digs, respectively. Muno ranks second in the Pac-12 for digs per set.
With a fresh lineup and multiple adjustments, UCLA struggled to find its place, dropping its Pac-12 opener in five sets to USC. After back-to-back losses to Washington and Washington State, UCLA found itself with a 6-6 conference record at the end of October.
Sealy said that from then on, the team put extra energy and effort into practices. The Bruins went on to win six of their last eight Pac-12 games this season, including a sweep of No. 10 seed USC to finish tied for fifth in the conference.
“I think from November on, the season was fantastic,” Sealy said. “I look forward to building upon that.”
UCLA will be graduating Sponcil and outside hitter Reily Buechler, who leads the team with 417 kills. Buechler was first on the squad with 25 double-figure kills contests, earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors and became the 12th Bruin to reach the 1,500-kill mark for her career.
“I’ll miss all the girls (and) honestly that’s probably what’ll affect me the most – the team,” Buechler said. “It’s been a fun four years and it’s a bummer that it’s over.”
UCLA returned only one starter, Buechler, coming into this year, but will be returning five next season.
“I’ve been at UCLA for eight years. … But I will always see this year as the first year of our program,” Sealy said. “This was the foundation year. We’ve got to build.”
Sealy added that the Bruins will have to dedicate themselves to improving their game if they want to be a championship threat.
“It’s really hard to get from where we are to where a Florida, Nebraska and Stanford are right now,” Sealy said. “We’re not quite there yet, and that’s what we’re working toward.”