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Sweeping Long Beach State, UCLA men’s volleyball inches closer to national title

The UCLA men’s volleyball team celebrates after its win. Entering Thursday’s matchup remembering the loss against the same team with the same stakes last year, the blue and gold delivered, sweeping Long Beach State to secure a title game berth. (Ethan Manafi/Daily Bruin staff)

Men’s Volleyball

No. 1 seed UCLA3
Long Beach State0

By Anthony Aroyan

May 4, 2023 4:35 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated Alex Knight was on the team for UCLA’s 2018 loss to Long Beach State at the NCAA tournament. In fact, he was not on the team at that time. The original version of this article also incorrectly stated that Long Beach State’s record was 24-5. In fact, it is 21-5. The original version of this article and its infobox incorrectly stated that Long Beach State was the No. 4 seed for the tournament. In fact, it was not seeded. The original version of this article also incorrectly stated that UCLA had an 8-2 run at the end of the first set. In fact, it had a 9-3 run. The original version of this article also incorrectly stated that Merrick McHenry had a .000 hitting percentage in the first set. In fact, he had a negative hitting percentage.

This post was updated May 10 at 7:13 p.m. 

FAIRFAX, Va – The Bruins had a score to settle. 

And they did so commandingly.

History would not repeat itself Thursday afternoon, as No. 1 seed UCLA men’s volleyball (30-2, 12-0 MPSF) swept Long Beach State (21-5, 9-1 Big West) in Fairfax, Virginia, at the NCAA semifinal game.

UCLA would grab the lead early in the opening set, although three service errors in the opening 10 – half of the Bruins’ service errors for the entire match – would keep Long Beach State within striking distance. But with last year’s reverse sweep still fresh in the air, a 9-3 run to line up set point showcased UCLA’s decisiveness to put the match away.

“That first set was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen from a team in the final four,” coach John Speraw said. “We were just ready to go, and it set the tone for the match.”

Despite heading the hitting charge during the MPSF tournament, redshirt junior middle blocker Merrick McHenry had trouble hitting his stride in the first set, picking up his first two errors of the postseason to end the frame with a negative clip.

Nevertheless, the Bruins saw strength on the outside, with all three of the starting hitters finding ways to score in the opening frame. Maintaining pressure from behind the line, UCLA secured three aces, with two coming from senior outside hitter Alex Knight. 

Knight, who was on the team for last year’s semifinal defeat, said this win was personally important as well as critical for the team. 

“I’m local around Westwood, so I know the history of Long Beach (and) UCLA,” Knight said. “I’m going to remember this game for the rest of my life – super proud of the guys.” 

In their largest set win over the Beach this season, the Bruins were sending a message. Dominating their own section of George Mason’s EagleBank Arena, the UCLA faithful brought the Westwood atmosphere more than 2,600 miles away from Pauley Pavilion, drowning out the stadium after every point. 

Continuing its run into the second frame, the blue and gold maintained a calm mentality. With the players picking each other up after every dropped point and frantically huddling after scoring, they demonstrated the poise that Speraw emphasized throughout the season. 

Setter Andrew Rowan sets the ball. The AVCA Newcomer of the Year delivered Thursday, as he set the Bruins to a .458 hitting percentage and notched three back-to-back kills to elevate UCLA to the win. (Ethan Manafi/Daily Bruin staff)

By the end of the second set, UCLA showed that its play through the first wasn’t a fluke. Dominating the frame to a tune of 25-14, McHenry raised his hitting percentage, and so did the Bruins, tallying only nine errors in the entire match to end the contest hitting at a .458 clip in one of their best open match plays of the season.

“That’s the randomness of the game, honestly,” Speraw said. “He was trying to go fast and increase his speed a little bit, but he had some great swings and he picked it up along the way.” 

Undergoing a resurgence in the third, Long Beach refused to go down easy. Keeping the scoreline within two for the first half of the frame, UCLA needed to get creative to close the match. 

Answering the call, freshman setter Andrew Rowan found back-to-back kills, faking sets while tipping the ball over the net for a setter dump. To complete the hat trick, the AVCA Newcomer of the Year took a page out of his hitters’ book, spiking the ball into a hole in the defense. 

Rowan credited his 40-assist performance to the determination and hustle of his teammates. 

“The passing was perfect, and the hustle in the back row was awesome,” Rowan said. “We got digs and we made plays. We’ve been stressing that a lot recently, just scrapping for the ball.”

The match-winning point came off a three-man block for UCLA, forcing an error off Long Beach. With their road to the final now paved, Bruin fans, players and coaches alike erupted, exorcizing last year’s demons once and for all. 

UCLA will begin its quest for program title No. 20 on Saturday against the winner of Hawai’i and Penn State.

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Anthony Aroyan
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