After a lengthy season with new squad members taking on larger roles, the Bruins fell one set short of claiming the NCAA championship.
Coach John Speraw said after the championship final that this team was different than others that had advanced as far in the postseason because it had to create a new offense.
“Teams that I’ve coached in the past that have won have been a little bit settled at the beginning of the season,” Speraw said. “This team had to reinvent an offense, add new components in place. I’m disappointed, obviously, because we had our opportunities.”
This year’s UCLA men’s volleyball squad had suffered losses at three starting positions entering the 2017-2018 season. Graduating seniors middle blocker Mitch Stahl, opposite/libero Jackson Bantle and setter/opposite Hagen Smith had all been starters and left gaps in the lineup.
Senior opposite Christian Hessenauer would fill in for Smith from the start of the season onward. Hessenauer went from nine starts in the 2017 season to being selected in the starting group every match he was available for.
Hessenauer finished the season as the leading scorer for the Bruins with 395 kills and hit for .307 over the course of the season. He recorded a career- and season-high 22 kills in the NCAA tournament quarterfinal match against Harvard.
Stahl’s replacement as middle blocker for the season would be sophomore Daenan Gyimah. As a freshman, Gyimah saw 17 starts but became a full-time starter during the 2018 season, splitting time with redshirt senior Oliver Martin at the middle of the front three.
Gyimah finished the season second in team scoring with 301 kills and first in blocking with 1.22 blocks per set – with 14 blocked shots and 137 block assists. The sophomore was the most efficient offensive player in the country, hitting for .528 over the course of the season.
Gyimah was named an AVCA First-Team All-American alongside junior setter Micah Ma’a, finishing the season with a career-high 21 kills in the NCAA championship final.
UCLA began the season with a seven-game winning streak, including a five-set win over 2017 national champions Ohio State at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins would finish the season third in the country with 13.08 kills per set and emerged defensively as one of the best blocking teams, eighth in the country with 2.42 blocks per set.
The Bruins finished the season winning 11 of their last 15 overall matches and securing the No. 2 seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.
The Bruins struggled away from home, dropping their first game of the season in Honolulu to the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors. UCLA was 6-6 away from home, including two losses in Provo, Utah, at the hands of NCAA semifinalist BYU.
Despite losing the chance at an automatic bid in the MPSF tournament final with a loss to BYU, UCLA secured an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and finished the regular season 22-6.
Serving continued to be a large component of Speraw’s strategy for the team. UCLA finished fifth in the nation with 1.70 aces per set but also had 653 service errors to its opponents’ 483. Most serving troubles came at conference rival BYU – 4,500 feet above sea level.
“Altitude,” Ma’a said. “Playing at BYU is a different experience. How the ball flies and how they serve there, it just has such an impact on how the game is played. It’s really tough to play at BYU.”
At Pauley Pavilion or the John Wooden Center, UCLA was nearly unbeatable, finishing the season 19-2 at home. The only two games dropped were both to No. 1 Long Beach State. The 49ers would meet the Bruins twice at Pauley, notably in the NCAA championship final, in which Long Beach State won in five sets.
The NCAA tournament hosted at Pauley Pavilion from May 1 to May 5 gave the Bruins the chance to win their first NCAA title since 2006. UCLA defeated Harvard in the quarters and then No. 2 seed BYU in the semifinal to play No. 1 seed Long Beach State in the final.
With a 2-1 set lead in the NCAA championship final, the Bruins lost the championship-clinching fourth set 26-24 after four-straight errors from the service line. Long Beach State took the fifth set 15-12 as well as the championship in front of a crowd of 7,000. When asked about missing serves 5 points away from the title, Speraw said it is a part of the UCLA’s strategy that never changes.
“Feel free to ask me about serves, I don’t care,” Speraw said. “I’ve never cared and I certainly didn’t care tonight. I wanted them to go out there and bomb (serves), that was the only way we were going to win.”
Junior outside hitter Dylan Missry said in the press conference after the NCAA final that the Bruins will suffer from the losses of four starters: Hessenauer, senior outside hitter Jake Arnitz, Martin and senior outside hitter and libero JT Hatch.
However, Missry said what this team proved is it could reinvent itself and win, especially when advancing into the postseason. With a potentially new group filling in for those seniors and once again having to adapt, the program will be one to watch next season.