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Bruins in Paris

UCLA men’s volleyball to face Hawai’i in NCAA championship final

Redshirt senior Troy Gooch leans down to pass the ball. Ending Thursday’s match with eight digs, the libero has spearheaded a defense that has only lost two games this season. (Ethan Manafi/Daily Bruin staff)

Men's Volleyball

No. 2 seed Hawai'i
Saturday, 2 p.m.

EagleBank Arena

By Anthony Aroyan

May 6, 2023 11:25 a.m.

FAIRFAX, Va. – The Bruins will face their toughest challenge in half a decade after punching their ticket to the NCAA championship final.

No. 1 seed UCLA men’s volleyball (30-2, 12-0 MPSF) will face off against No. 2 seed Hawai’i (29-2, 9-1 Big West) on Saturday for the national championship at George Mason’s EagleBank Stadium. Hunting for their 20th national title in their first chance since 2018, the Bruins remember their past encounter with the Rainbow Warriors this season.

“They’re an exceptional team with exceptional players, and they’re very experienced,” coach John Speraw said. “We have a really big challenge ahead of us.

Playing one another in the Outrigger Tournament in March, UCLA fell 3-1 in a match marked by two overtime sets. Struggling to strike the ball efficiently, both teams hit significantly below their season averages, with the Bruins posting a .268 percentage, .100 below their .383 average.

Statistically, while both schools lead the rankings in nearly all categories and are top two in hitting percentage and kills per set, there remains a distinction. During each team’s semifinal matchup, UCLA and Hawai’i accrued nine and 20 errors, respectively. While the Bruins had errors in blocking, serving and attacking, much of the Rainbow Warriors’ other mistakes came from behind the service line.

Despite Hawai’i’s errors Thursday, redshirt senior libero Troy Gooch still believes in the danger a strong serve poses from behind the line.

“They have a lot of guys that can go back there and rip serves,” Gooch said. “It’s just (going to be) an extra bit of communication with how loud it’s going to be tomorrow.”

Gooch, who picked up an MPSF Defensive Player of the Week nod this season, showed his effectiveness against the serve Thursday, tallying no receive errors while acting as a defensive anchor in the back row with eight digs.

For UCLA, the final showdown will see many familiar names called upon to finish the season on the highest note. The MPSF champions have four AVCA All-American First-Team selections on the roster – more than any other program in the county.

Against Long Beach State, the bulk of the offensive production came from the outside hitting tandem of sophomore Ido David and junior Ethan Champlin. The duo combined for 31 kills, with 13 coming in the opening set.

On the flip side, the Bruins’ wild card for the final is redshirt junior Merrick McHenry. The middle blocker leads the nation in hitting percentage at .527, but on Thursday, he posted a .091 clip off 11 hits by the end of the second frame, raising his final percentage to .231 with two kills in the third. McHenry’s efficiency on Saturday may end up as the determining factor for UCLA.

Outside of the starters, UCLA has the bench depth to make any necessary rotations. One standout role player for the Bruins has been middle blocker J.R. Norris IV. The redshirt senior – who hit crucial back to back kills in the MPSF tournament final against Stanford – has made sporadic appearances for Speraw throughout the season.

“The main thing I’ve been focused on is just staying locked into the game,” Norris said. “Communicating with Guy and Merrick about what we see during the match and working in tandem to get the best possible outcome.”

Speraw – the 2023 AVCA National Coach of the Year – will lead the team in what will be his second national championship game appearance as the Bruins’ head coach. Speraw last won the award in 2006 as head coach of UC Irvine, the same year UCLA won their most recent national title.

UCLA will kick off its season finale on Saturday at the EagleBank Arena at 2 p.m.

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Anthony Aroyan
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