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Amy’s Angle: Amid roster tumult, Andrew Rowan promises stability for UCLA men’s volleyball

Pictured are UCLA men’s volleyball freshman Andrew Rowan (right) and junior Miles Partain (left). Partain has departed from the Bruins’ program, leaving Rowan as UCLA’s starting setter. (Left to right: Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin, Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor. Photo illustration by Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

By Amelie Ionescu

Feb. 13, 2023 3:21 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 14 at 10:04 p.m.

Losing a first-team All American and Lloy Ball Award finalist might have set some teams back.

But not the Bruins.

UCLA men’s volleyball junior setter/opposite Miles Partain announced he was withdrawing from the squad Thursday, leaving freshman Andrew Rowan as the Bruins’ sole starting setter. But despite Partain’s breakout year as a sophomore a season ago, 2023 could be Rowan’s time to shine.

If there’s one thing John Speraw likes as a coach, it’s his team’s depth. A revolving door of a roster dictated pre-conference play, as adjustments were continuously made to help the Bruins succeed. And through the first nine games – against nine low-ranked and unranked opponents – Speraw’s strategy allowed the Bruins to thrive.

Until it didn’t.

(Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)
Coach John Speraw holds up a challenge card during UCLA’s match against Long Beach. With back-to-back victories over the Beach, the Bruins have rocketed back up the rankings to No. 2 in the nation. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

UCLA dropped its first match of the season against Penn State on Feb. 4 in a 3-1 decision in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. But the oddest part of the match wasn’t the then-No. 2 Bruins losing to the then-No. 4 Nittany Lions to trade places in the rankings. Nor was it that the blue and gold hit 10 service errors in the first set alone to drop the slate 25-21.

It was that Rowan started over Partain.

Before said match, Rowan and Partain had assumed their respective starting roles, with Rowan starting against potentially weaker opponents and Partain starting against ranked opponents, including the matchup against then-No. 13 Ohio State the day prior.

But this time, Speraw flipped the script, allowing the freshman to start the Bruins’ first top-five match of the year.

The Bruins lost, and according to redshirt junior middle blocker Merrick McHenry, the instability and inconsistency in the lineup didn’t help.

“It’s weird being with Miles and then being with Rowan, and then going back and forth,” McHenry said. “They’re different setters, they take the ball from different places, their release time is a little bit different.”

McHenry added that the beginning of the season was when Speraw and the team could flex their depth, while around now was when the squad would begin solidifying its lineup.

Five days later, Partain announced he was leaving the team.

The reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year left huge shoes to fill after leading his team to the highest hitting percentage in the nation in 2022 and gathering both offensive and defensive player of the week accolades along the way.

Nevertheless, Rowan has delivered so far.

In his first official match as the Bruins’ lone starting setter, Rowan led the team to a season-high .551 hitting percentage, while notching a team-high five blocks and a team-high six digs.

[Related: Ido David’s 17 kills lead UCLA men’s volleyball to sweep against Long Beach State]

Not only did Rowan have the best performance of his career Thursday, he did so against the team that knocked the Bruins out of the national championship conversation just one year prior. And he and the blue and gold did it all again the next day in enemy territory, taking the regular-season sweep over Long Beach State.

For the first time in three years, at the close of 2022, it looked like Speraw had finally found his key at setter in Partain. But Partain is on track to finish his degree in three years and has aspirations beyond what UCLA volleyball can offer him: namely, the Olympics.

Partain – who gave the Bruins the stability needed to ride the No. 1 spot on the American Volleyball Coaches Association leaderboard for nine weeks in 2022 – would have taken that stability right with him to Paris in 2024 if Speraw hadn’t allotted playing time for Rowan.

The freshman brings what the squad needs, and it’s what the team has lacked by now being on its fifth setter in as many years.

(Amelie Ionescu/Daily Bruin senior staff)
UCLA players – in their first official match without Partain in 2023 – celebrate after a point. (Amelie Ionescu/Daily Bruin senior staff)

With potentially three years and change left with the blue and gold, Rowan can institute what no one else could for years: stability.

Rowan might not be as good as Partain yet. He doesn’t have to be.

From pin hitters to middle attackers to the starting libero, the players surrounding the Bruins’ newest setter bring the talent and experience to the roster that Rowan needs to thrive.

Losing Partain is not the end of the Bruins’ national title hopes or their status as a program of high acclaim.

It could be the start of something great.

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Amelie Ionescu | Sports senior staff
Ionescu was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men's volleyball, women's volleyball, swim and dive and rowing beats, and a contributor on the women's tennis beat.
Ionescu was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men's volleyball, women's volleyball, swim and dive and rowing beats, and a contributor on the women's tennis beat.
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