UCLA men’s volleyball sweeps Princeton in 2022 season opener
Redshirt senior middle blocker J.R. Norris IV (left) receives a set from sophomore setter/opposite Miles Partain (right). Norris finished with a career-high six kills in No. 2 UCLA men’s volleyball’s sweep over Princeton on Saturday. (Jenny Xu/Daily Bruin)
|No. 2 UCLA||3|
By Abigail Siatkowski
Jan. 16, 2022 3:36 p.m.
This post was updated Jan. 17 at 7:40 p.m.
In a delayed season opener, the Bruins ultimately secured a victory.
After withdrawing from its originally scheduled season opener at the UCSB Asics Invitational because of COVID-19 protocols, No. 2 UCLA men’s volleyball (1-0) began its 2022 campaign with a sweep over Princeton (0-2) at the John Wooden Center on Saturday evening.
“It feels amazing,” said redshirt senior middle blocker J.R. Norris IV. “We’ve been waiting a long time to get out and play again.”
The first set got off to a slow start for the Bruins, who failed to take a lead through the first 18 rallies of the frame.
With 11 straight serves from junior outside hitter Alex Knight, however, UCLA held Princeton to 11 points while it soared to 22. The blue and gold would take the first set while keeping the Tigers at bay with 12 points.
With neither team able to muster a run of more than four points in the second set, the two teams rallied to a 22-22 tie after a reception error from Knight.
A kill from redshirt junior opposite Kevin Kobrine pushed UCLA ahead 23-22 and gave it the sideout. With Norris stepping up to serve, the redshirt senior delivered back-to-back aces to close out the set.
“Nothing, honestly,” Norris said when asked what was running through his mind as he stepped up for his second serve. “I just kind of stay in the moment.”
Playing in his first collegiate match since 2020, Norris scored career highs in service aces, kills and block assists in Saturday’s victory.
In the third set, the Bruins claimed an opening point for the first time in the match, but the two teams would play to the tune of 14 ties – the most of any period in the contest. After two kills from Kobrine, UCLA led 21-19 – its largest lead of the set to that point.
Following an ace and a kill from Knight as well as an attack error from Princeton outside hitter Ben Harrington, UCLA extended its lead to five and sat at match point. Unable to score, the Bruins allowed the Tigers to earn three more points before clinching the victory courtesy of a service error from outside hitter/opposite James Hartley.
Kobrine said the team’s resilience with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of the season mirrored its performance in the final set.
“We’ve been persistent this whole year, with COVID, with injuries,” Kobrine said. “That was just another obstacle. (It was a) really challenging game, came down to one or two points (in) some of the sets, and it’s just something we’ve been working on – persistence, grit, determination.”
Despite leading UCLA in blocks and eligible hitting percentage a season ago, redshirt sophomore middle blocker Merrick McHenry was not in uniform for Saturday’s match. Coach John Speraw declined to comment on McHenry’s absence. To replace him, redshirt freshman Guy Genis and Norris saw time as middle blockers.
Speraw said despite some mistakes and errors, he was happy with how his team performed.
“Obviously not the efficiencies we want, but that’s not a surprise considering where we are in the season and the break we just had and everybody being out because of COVID,” Speraw said. “So in general, (I’m) really pleased with the way we played.”
The Bruins swung for a .406 hitting percentage compared to a .165 hitting clip by the Tigers.
Looking to the season ahead, Norris said he hopes the team can improve in all areas.
“We have a long way to go before we’re where we really want to be,” Norris said. “It’s gonna be a lot of work, but we’re all looking forward to it.”
UCLA will be back at home Friday with a matchup against Ohio State in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.