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Cohesion concerns cause UCLA men’s volleyball to concede loss to Penn State

Coach John Speraw looks on. Speraw and UCLA men’s volleyball had their first loss of the season because of a lack of offensive and defensive cohesion. (Jon Christon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Men's Volleyball


No. 2 UCLA1
No. 4 Penn State3

By Bryan Palmero

Feb. 5, 2023 1:25 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 5 at 10:48 p.m.

John Speraw tried to conceal his displeasure after his team’s match Saturday.

Though expressing pride in the Bruins’ progress this season, the often-calculated coach revealed mixed emotions through his words – mid-sentence, even.

“I feel pretty good about our ability to continue to improve – we have not played great volleyball so far this year,” Speraw said.

His palpable disappointment focused on the offensive cohesion after his team incurred a season-high 20 attack errors. An inability to execute on its swings spelled the end of No. 2 UCLA men’s volleyball’s (9-1) undefeated streak to start the 2023 season with a 21-25, 25-18, 19-25, 17-25 defeat at No. 4 Penn State (8-1) in the main event of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.

In the same week in which they set a season low in hitting percentage to unranked George Mason, the Bruins could only scrape together a .295 clip against the Nittany Lions in Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley.

“We have not been as sharp as we were at the end of the fall,” Speraw said. “Our offense is not connected. There’s specific areas of our game that we need to really, really improve.”

Junior outside hitter Ethan Champlin mustered seven kills to his six errors, including a set-ending attempt into a roof of Penn State arms that put UCLA trailing in a match for just the second time this year.

Champlin’s counterparts fared better, as sophomore outside hitter/opposite Ido David paced the Bruins with his 12 kills while redshirt senior middle blocker J.R. Norris IV posted a career-high 11 kills and forced the Nittany Lions to swarm the middle attack.

But even they weren’t spared Speraw’s critiques.

“We’re not very connected. We’re missing hitters,” Speraw said. “We’re not making good shots. … We’ve really not figured out the middle of the court as well as I would like, and tonight, our left side just wasn’t going very well either.”

The Nittany Lions pounced on the Bruin defense too, coming in the form of 15 kills from opposite Cal Fisher and 10 more from outside hitter Michal Kowal. It was a combined defeat, as Fisher – appearing in just his second match of the season – torched UCLA with three service aces, a pair of which caught redshirt senior libero Troy Gooch off guard.

(Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)
Junior outside hitter Ethan Champlin, redshirt sophomore outside hitter Grant Sloane and redshirt senior libero Troy Gooch recoup after a point. (Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)

UCLA was out-hit, out-aced and out-blocked. And in its first loss of the year, it amassed 20 service errors, with 10 coming in the first set alone. For comparison, the blue and gold scrambled to tally three service aces.

“We struggled a little bit in the service,” Norris said. “I personally struggled at blocking.”

Norris missed on four attempts from the line, and freshman Andrew Rowan – the team’s leader in service aces entering Saturday – piled on six service errors, one each to start and end the contest. Rowan, who dished out 36 assists as the starting setter, was one of a flurry of rotation changes on the night.

The Bruins tied the match after briefly substituting junior setter/opposite Miles Partain in the second set, but the comeback bid was short-lived even as Speraw held out hope while his team succumbed in back-to-back stanzas.

The beneficiary of Rowan’s and Partain’s sets Saturday night, redshirt junior middle blocker Merrick McHenry said the team’s depth has challenged its ability to mesh early on in the season.

“It’s honestly super difficult, and it’s something that I’m getting used to,” McHenry said. “It’s weird kind of being with Miles and then being with Rowan and then kind of going back and forth.”

[Related: UCLA men’s volleyball rotates through talented roster in early season]

Forming a self-proclaimed “best middle duo in the country” with Norris, McHenry complemented his teammate’s career night – regardless of setter. Behind his precision at the net, McHenry placed balls out of reach en route to a seven-kill, three-block outing in hostile territory.

As he felt regarding his individual players’ highlights amid a top-five defeat, Speraw continued his ambivalence.

“Even though it wasn’t super pretty, I was feeling pretty good,” Speraw said. “I don’t enjoy losing, but we’re not here to win in January. And we’re here to win at the end. I think this match will make us better.”

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Bryan Palmero | Daily Bruin senior staff
Palmero is a senior staff writer for Sports. He served as the assistant Sports editor on the softball, beach volleyball, women's volleyball, men's volleyball and men's golf beats from 2021-2022 and a Sports reporter on the beach volleyball and women's volleyball beats in 2021. He is a third-year mathematics and economics student.
Palmero is a senior staff writer for Sports. He served as the assistant Sports editor on the softball, beach volleyball, women's volleyball, men's volleyball and men's golf beats from 2021-2022 and a Sports reporter on the beach volleyball and women's volleyball beats in 2021. He is a third-year mathematics and economics student.
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