UCLA women’s volleyball had a fluctuating regular season, taking time to adjust to a young roster.
However, everything is seemingly coming together for the Bruins as they enter the Sweet 16 looking for a win against a Florida team with just one loss.
“We’re hitting our stride at the right time,” said junior libero Zana Muno. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season. But all that’s important is hitting your peak at the right time and we’re definitely doing that.”
The No. 15 seed Bruins (21-10) will travel to Gainesville, Florida, on Friday to take on the No. 2 seed Gators (27-1) in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
UCLA lost in five sets to No. 3 seed Stanford on Nov. 16 and has proceeded to go on a five-game win streak since, including a sweep over No. 10 seed USC.
Coach Michael Sealy said after the USC game that he thinks the team can grow exponentially due to its youth and team chemistry.
“I think the team’s been really consistent for the last six weeks,” Sealy said. “The energy, the attitude, the focus is consistent. I think it’s a nice balance because they’re (also) a fun, laid-back group.”
Florida is an experienced group with lots of talent and size. The Gators start three seniors and a redshirt junior. Middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan, who’s 6-foot-4-inches, leads the nation in blocks per set, while 6-foot-8-inch middle blocker Rachael Kramer is seventh in the country with a hitting percentage of .434.
Across the net, UCLA middle blocker Kyra Rogers stands at 6 feet. The junior, while undersized for her position, has been able to log a season .272 hitting percentage and 78 total blocks, both second-best on the team.
“I know I’m going to be facing a lot of players that are much bigger than me,” Rogers said. “I just have to accept that I’m going to get a lot of my attacks blocked … and just play fast and reset after every play.”
Florida has won in straight sets 16 times this season and hasn’t lost since Oct. 15. It has held opponents to a .132 hitting percentage on average, which ranks second-best in the nation. The Gators have also employed an efficient attack, ranking 13th in the country in hitting percentage with .287.
“I think we’re a very good defensive team and I think that we can outlast a lot of teams,” Muno said. “(We can) keep a low error percentage and keep the ball in play until other teams make errors, which I think will match up really well against Florida.”
Florida has made the NCAA tournament 27 times in a row since its current coach Mary Wise took over in 1991, but has yet to win a national championship. In last year’s tournament, the Gators were upset by their rival, the Florida State Seminoles, in the second round.
UCLA will be looking to advance to the national quarterfinals for the second year in a row.
“Pressure’s on them. No. 2 seed? They have to get through that region,” Sealy said. “If you’re gonna have a season where you have the number two seed, all the expectations are there. If they don’t get through this region and get to the Final Four, that’s probably a disappointment for them and their fans.”