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Men’s volleyball reflects on a season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic

UCLA men’s volleyball ended its season with a No. 9 ranking and a record one game above .500. The Bruins will return most of their roster next season, including the 12 freshmen who featured for coach John Speraw. (Courtney Quirmbach/Daily Bruin)

By Jake Greenberg-Bell

April 10, 2020 3:55 p.m.

Coach John Speraw had warned the team, but that didn’t take the sting out of it when the news became certain.

The former microbiology and molecular genetics student at UCLA said he had read up on the coronavirus and told his team about it weeks before it ended No. 9 UCLA men’s volleyball’s (10-9, 2-3 MPSF) season for good.

Nonetheless, redshirt junior outside hitter/setter Sam Kobrine said he was taken aback when he heard the news.

“I was pretty shocked that they actually ended it that quickly, but I mean coach Speraw was talking about it weeks before, preparing us,” Kobrine said. “When it actually happened it was definitely very shocking – very, very shocking.”

On March 12, the NCAA announced it would be canceling all winter and spring championships because of the spread of COVID-19. With that announcement came an abrupt end to not just the Bruins’ season, but countless seasons across the school, state and nation.

Because their seasons had to be cut short, spring student-athletes were granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA. However, some seniors – such as outside hitter Austin Matautia, middle blockers Matt Younggren and Daenan Gyimah – have already taken to social media announcing their departures from the team.

Speraw said it remains unclear who of the remaining seniors will return to Westwood next year to play for the Bruins.

“We’re still kind of working through which guys are going to return and which guys aren’t,” Speraw said. “I’d still love the opportunity to have one more shot with those guys.”

Unique to this year’s team were the 12 freshmen and redshirt freshmen, accounting for more than half the roster and setting the single-season high for most freshmen to suit up for a UCLA men’s volleyball team on record.

Not only were the freshmen listed, but they were featured frequently as well. Eight out of the twelve freshmen played in at least one match and of the seven season leaders in matches played, five were freshmen.

Kobrine said he was optimistic about the future of the program given the young core of talented players that have benefitted from the lessons of the team’s upperclassmen.

“Off the court, (the freshmen were) more professional, just taking care of other responsibilities like school, film, working out, those are the things I think the seniors did a good job of teaching,” Kobrine said. “They are incredibly talented for freshmen. You don’t see that that often – that many young guys getting to play at a really prestigious UCLA program.”

While the Bruins ended the season just a game above .500, five days prior to the NCAA’s announcement, UCLA knocked off No. 6 UC San Diego. After losing to the Tritons earlier in the season, the Bruins secured their second win of the season against a top-10 team in what turned out to be their final match of 2020.

The first of those two upsets came on the road against No.4 Long Beach State. Prior to the win, the Bruins had lost six straight matches to the Beach over the course of the past three seasons, including the 2018 national championship.

“Our win against Long Beach State stood out for me,” Kobrine said. “As a team that beat us in the national championship, beat us last couple years, and then we’re finally able to go to Long Beach State and beat them, so that was definitely a big step for our program considering how the past has gone.”

Coming up on UCLA’s schedule were more chances to right its wrongs against opponents who it had lost to earlier in the season, as it had against UCSD.

“I think the hard part about this year was that we were just starting to get a little bit better, and I felt like we had an opportunity to surprise some teams down at the end,” Speraw said. “I just liked the direction we were going, especially in that last week that we were training. … We tinkered around with the lineup in a particular way that was really impactful for us. I don’t think anybody even ever saw that lineup, so we’ll just have to save that for next year.”

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Jake Greenberg-Bell | Sports contributor
Greenberg-Bell is currently a Sports contributor on the men's volleyball beat. He was previously a contributor on the women's soccer beat.
Greenberg-Bell is currently a Sports contributor on the men's volleyball beat. He was previously a contributor on the women's soccer beat.
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