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Amy’s Angle: UCLA men’s volleyball philosophy could make or break championship hopes

Members of the UCLA men’s volleyball team go in for a huddle. The Bruins’ future rests on whether or not they can limit their errors enough during their NCAA tournament run. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin staff)

By Amelie Ionescu

May 2, 2023 10:25 p.m.

If the Bruins lose their best shot at a national championship in years, it won’t be because their opponents beat them.

It will be because they beat themselves.

Unforced errors tend to dominate UCLA men’s volleyball matches if the team isn’t careful, and that’s exactly what will have been the reason for its demise if the championship trophy doesn’t return to Westwood this weekend.

The team’s first loss against Penn State in early February was spurred on by 20 attack errors. A season-high 24 attack errors against Hawai’i spelled UCLA’s second and final loss of the season. And in between the two matches, 23 attack errors – with over half coming in the third and fourth sets – almost led to a reverse sweep loss against the Nittany Lions at the Outrigger Volleyball Invitational.

Despite UCLA leading the nation in hitting percentage, top-three opposition has managed to limit the Bruins to a sub-.300 clip across all matches, snuffing their usually dominant offense. Even last year, UCLA tallied 22 errors to Long Beach State’s nine in its NCAA tournament semifinal matchup to give up a reverse sweep to the Beach and lose its best shot in years at the title.

Coach John Speraw has a philosophy: serve aggressively and get the opposition out of system.

His philosophy tends to have success. The national coach of the year has led the Bruins to their best season since the turn of the century. But his philosophy also contributed to three straight service errors when UCLA was up two sets to none and five points away from a national championship in 2018.

A common trend links UCLA’s last two national tournament appearances. That same trend happens to link the Bruins’ two losses this season.

UCLA out-killed, out-aced and out-blocked Hawai’i, but back-to-back attack errors to close out the fourth set left it unable to pressure the Rainbow Warriors into a decisive fifth frame. Similarly, the Bruins started and ended their loss to the Nittany Lions with a service error.

If the team manages to secure its 30th win of the season Thursday against Long Beach State – which should prove doable – it’ll only have to face the victor between Penn State and Hawai’i to hoist trophy No. 20 for the program.

And there’s one way to win the final matchup.

(Myka Fromm/Daily Bruin staff)
Coach John Speraw leans in to talk. Speraw led the Bruins to their best season since 2006, picking up AVCA Coach of the Year and MPSF Coach of the Year accolades along the way. (Myka Fromm/Daily Bruin staff)

Speraw preaches one-point volleyball wherein each point is a new chance for the Bruins to succeed, pushing the team to not consider the score or the last rally. It’s a philosophy the team has attempted to embody through the season, a philosophy that led to UCLA’s ability to overcome first-set deficits through conference play and a philosophy that secured it 20 sweeps on the season.

It’s a philosophy that will determine the team’s success or its demise.

Starting off a match on three straight errors or even allowing several straight errors at any point in time could be the difference in any close contest. It was the difference in two of the four sets against top-ranked Hawai’i in March.

Men’s volleyball is a game played best of five sets. Every point is equally critical, and every frame is a fresh start.

At least, that’s true in theory. In practice, however, mentality can prove hard to manage. Nevertheless, mindset matters in every facet of play, starting with the first serve.

The top-seeded team in UCLA touts a nation-leading four AVCA First-Team All-Americans. Its entire starting lineup collected an All-American nod, and the Bruins also boast the national Newcomer of the Year.

Pressure on the biggest stage is natural.

Whether or not UCLA can limit its errors, put its monsters to rest and lift its first national championship rests on a philosophy.

It’s time to face the problem head-on.

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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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