Set for success: UCLA men’s volleyball starts quest for 20th NCAA title
Jan. 8, 2014 12:00 a.m.
There’s an aura of familiarity and leadership around the UCLA men’s volleyball team – an aura that was missing just one year ago.
No one really knew what to expect from the Bruins leading up to last season; John Speraw was entering his first year as the UCLA coach and was taking over a team that had exactly zero senior starters.
Considering the circumstances, the season was a success. The Bruins ended the year on a tear and were one set away from toppling then-No. 1 BYU in the conference tournament semifinals.
This time around, the Bruins begin their journey for their 20th NCAA championship – a school record – under much more stable conditions. Speraw is firmly established as the new face of UCLA volleyball, and the Bruins come in with several seasoned veterans, including the likes of AVCA National Player of the Year candidate Gonzalo Quiroga, a senior outside hitter.
All of this adds up to lofty national championship expectations, but Speraw is being careful to play down such aspirations.
“The one thing that has changed this year is that the expectation to play well and win a national championship is exceptionally high, but it’s not easy to win a national championship,” said Speraw. “We’re going to have to be humble and understand who we are and where we’re at in order to win.”
While the expectations for this team are currently high, they were even higher immediately following last season. The Bruins were set to return every single starter, but unexpected events – kept private within the team – have resulted in a few key players no longer being part of the program.
“Things happen to every team, that’s the way the offseason goes,” Speraw said. “(The offseason) wasn’t perfect for us, but that’s OK. We’re just going to move forward and I think we have the right people to get the job done.”
Expected to come in and balance out those losses is a highly touted freshman class that is widely considered to be the best in the country. Whether or not the freshmen are as good as advertised remains to be seen, but so far the returning players have been impressed by the newcomers.
“We have a great freshman class that is coming in and filling in some of the voids we have. They have a ton of talent,” said senior outside hitter Robart Page. “I think it’s the first class in a few years that has come in and played at this level right away. It’s a big jump.”
Freshmen Mitch Stahl, Jackson Bantle and Michael Fisher are all candidates to see significant time at outside hitter. Also, freshmen Hagen Smith and Grant Chalmers are in the mix – along with junior Ian Sequeira – for the starting libero spot, which may be the biggest question mark the Bruins have heading into the season.
“If you look at the libero position, we have two or three new guys that haven’t seen a whole lot of playing time,” Speraw said. “Experience matters. … It’s an open competition.”
Despite some questions concerning key positions, players are confident that the team has the necessary pieces to live up to the high expectations.
“It’s an interesting team; we have a bunch of veterans who had a good season last year and a really good recruiting class that’s going to help us out,” said senior middle blocker Spencer Rowe. “Our goal is to surpass where we were last year, and I think with the personnel we have, we’re definitely capable of doing that.”
This past week, the Bruins ended their preseason by participating in the UCSB Asics Invitational, where they split four exhibition matches before losing to Stanford in what was the first official game of the regular season.
While it may be too soon to make any definitive conclusions, these matches gave Speraw a glimpse of where his squad stacks up against the competition at this moment in time.
“Truthfully, I’ve been quite impressed with some of the teams we’ve faced already, and I think there are teams out there that, at this moment, are better than we are,” Speraw said. “But I like this challenge. I always feel like the season is a race to see who can improve the most.”