Three weeks ago, Michael Sealy said his team was an embarrassing representation of UCLA.
And he wasn’t wrong.
The coach failed to lead UCLA women’s volleyball (13-14, 8-12 Pac-12) to the NCAA tournament after the team lost nine of its last 11 games and finished with a losing record for the first time in the program’s history.
Sealy has proved that he can be a high-caliber coach – leading the Bruins to an NCAA championship in 2011 and taking home the AVCA National Coach of the Year award that same year. He has watched his team go to seven NCAA tournaments and has advanced to the Round of 16 or further the past four years.
But this season was different – or at least the end of it was.
UCLA started the season 4-0, led by freshman setter Devon Chang who recorded 52 assists against San Diego. While UCLA had a spotty September with losses to Cal Poly, USC and Stanford, it looked like a real postseason contender in October.
UCLA sat comfortably in the top 20 match after match, garnering four straight wins in two weeks.
But as October came to an end, so did the Bruins’ success. They began to lack effectiveness on defense and behind the service line. Their seemingly steady lineup started to crack.
They were not the same team.
After UCLA’s loss to USC in September, junior Kylie Miller became the starting setter for the remainder of the season. Chang would jump in occasionally late in sets, but it became Miller’s team.
The setter acts as the quarterback on the court, calling the plays and controlling the ball. Switching up the position partway through the season – just like changing who is at quarterback – can be an unsteady adjustment for any team.
If UCLA had stuck with a single setter from the get-go – whether it be Chang or Miller – it would have been able to develop more cohesion and consistency throughout the middle of the season.
Beginning with the Bruins’ preseason exhibition match against UC Santa Barbara in August, Sealy harped on his range of lineup options and versatile freshmen who would come in handy this year.
He didn’t utilize them, though.
Freshman opposite Hawley Harrer – who had three straight seven-kill matches early in the season – only played in six sets in November.
Freshman defensive specialist Sawyer Aigner-Swesey posted 13 digs in UCLA’s second match of the year against Gonzaga, but only saw the court this season when she would come in for sophomore outside hitter Jenny Mosser to play defense.
While Sealy did give more playing time to redshirt freshmen outside hitter Alexis Light and middle blocker Emily Ryan, he failed to mix in sophomores defensive specialist Anne Crouch and middle blocker Sabrina Smith.
Crouch and Smith played in 29 and 16 sets, respectively, last season – but never played once this year.
After the Bruins’ win against the San Diego Toreros in September, Sealy said he had a roster of 18 players who were going to help UCLA win matches.
Only eight of them consistently saw the court.
If Sealy wants to get the program back up to UCLA standards, he needs to fine-tune his lineup, establish more consistency at setter and play off the strengths of his roster.
Or next year will be just as embarrassing.