A trio of Bruins played key parts in USA Volleyball’s silver medal performance in Chicago.
Recently graduated setter Micah Ma’a, former UCLA outside hitter Garrett Muagututia and Bruin coach John Speraw were chosen to represent Team USA at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League Finals from July 10 to 14. Team USA came back to defeat Brazil in five sets in Saturday’s semifinals, but then dropped the final to Russia in four sets, 25-23, 20-25, 25-21, 25-20.
After compiling a 9-6 record against 15 teams in five qualifying rounds played internationally, the United States finished sixth in the overall standings – with the top six making the finals. As host of the finals, the U.S. automatically qualified for the finals regardless of its record.
“We played a really diverse set of lineups, mostly because we had already qualified,” Speraw said. “We got to take a look at some younger guys with less international experience, like (Ma’a). Playing with those guys, I’m really pleased we finished sixth.”
Ma’a started or substituted in 40 of 56 sets in qualifying, but during the VNL Finals, Ma’a only played in three of 16 sets. Ma’a said automatically qualifying allowed the team to grow and explore different strengths in the rounds leading up to the finals.
“Luckily, there was a lot less pressure because we received an automatic bid,” Ma’a said. “(The qualifying rounds) were good for the team to travel and get some games under our belt. Hopefully it helped the guys at home so they could rest up, recover and tune up their games.”
As one of the two nonprofessional players on the finals’ roster, Ma’a said it is key for players to understand their roles and recognize the situation of playing off the bench in big matches.
“It’s important to know your role in order to be able to do it correctly,” Ma’a said. “The guys on the team that aren’t starters and superstars, we said our job is to go out there and play the best we could. When the game is on the line, we’re probably going to take a back seat, and we’re all good with that.”
The U.S. began the finals in a group with Russia and France, last year’s gold and silver medalists, respectively. On Wednesday, Team USA defeated Team France in four sets and went on to dispatch Team Russia in three sets Friday.
“(The VNL Finals) are really all about getting guys back out there healthy in our full lineups,” Speraw said. “We’ve had a limited amount of time together (in qualifying), and we’re playing without some guys because of injuries. Working together and getting on the same page for the finals, that was the difference.”
Throughout the entire competition, Ma’a totaled 27 digs, 391 sets and eight aces. Ma’a is UCLA’s all-time leading server with 208 aces, and led the team in assists and digs in the 2019 season.
While Ma’a’s role with the national team wasn’t what it was at UCLA, Speraw said Ma’a made contributions to the team and will grow from the change in his situation.
“He was a starter for (UCLA) for four years, and now he has to re-earn his position,” Speraw said. “It’s a different role for both of us – he’s gone from being the senior back to the young guy on the team. That being said, he’s one of the best I’ve ever coached and deserves his spot on the national team.”
Besides coaching the Bruins since 2012, Speraw is also in his seventh year leading the U.S. men’s national team. He led the U.S. to a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, as well as gold at the 2014 FIVB World League finals and the 2015 FIVB World Cup.
Muagututia, who played for UCLA from 2007 to 2010, ranked second on the national team in digs during the VNL, and led the team in kills, aces and total service receptions.
Ma’a said Muagututia has been a steadying force for him while he’s been adjusting to international play.
“(Muagututia) kind of took me under his wing,” Ma’a said. “He’s also (a) Bruin and Polynesian, so he’s been helping me every step of the way. Whether it’s advice in timeouts or talking on the court, he’s been giving me great pointers, and at 31 he’s been doing this a lot longer than I have.”
After the six weeks of the VNL, the national team will play in a tournament to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August. Speraw said the unusual summer schedule altered which players and lineups many of the teams used during the VNL.
“It’s a real grind, five weekends in a row and then the finals,” Speraw said. “A lot of teams are resting guys for the Olympic qualifiers in August. It was great for us to host (the VNL Finals) because we can get that rest in early, and work on our twofold goal – winning the VNL Finals and doing well in Olympic qualifiers for Tokyo in 2020.”
Former UCLA middle blocker Mitch Stahl was on the roster in qualifying, but didn’t play the last two weeks due to injury, and wasn’t named to the roster for the finals.