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Battle of the Editors: Which UCLA teams took a step forward or backward this year?

The UCLA women’s soccer team celebrates with the national championship trophy. The Bruins took down North Carolina on Dec. 5 by a score of 3-2 to clinch the national title. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

By Sam Settleman, Amelie Ionescu, Grace Whitaker, Jack Nelson, Joseph Crosby, and Lauryn Olina Wang

May 16, 2023 10:33 p.m.

This post was updated May 19 at 12:35 p.m.

The 2022-2023 season has been headlined by a pair of national championships in Westwood, but not all has been positive in UCLA athletics this year. With the sports year winding down, the Daily Bruin Sports editors debate which programs took the biggest step forward this year and which took the biggest step backward.

(Vivian Xu/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Members of UCLA gymnastics celebrate at a meet as the team’s score is announced. (Vivian Xu/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Sam Settleman
Sports editor

Biggest step forward: Gymnastics

Talent was never a question.

For UCLA gymnastics, talent is all but a given. But for a multitude of reasons, that talent hadn’t translated for the Bruins in recent years. They were stuck in a pattern of falling short of expectations.

The program fell upon especially tumultuous times in 2022 when controversy plagued the program and former coach Chris Waller resigned after the season – one in which UCLA missed the NCAA championships for the second straight year.

But with Janelle McDonald taking over the program, hope was on the horizon.

Led by sophomore Jordan Chiles and freshman Selena Harris, UCLA made a return to nationals in 2023.

And while the roster will look different next season, the program’s step forward this year has set the foundation for UCLA to return to its national title-winning ways in short order.

Biggest step backward: Women’s water polo

What once was one of the most dominant programs in the sport has fallen by the wayside.

For the second year in a row, UCLA women’s water polo bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the semifinal stage, leaving the Bruins titleless since the early 2000s, when they won five NCAA championships in a row and seven of nine overall.

In five years with the program, coach Adam Wright has made the championship game just once – a game in which UCLA suffered the biggest blowout defeat in title game history. The last 13 trophies have bounced back and forth between Stanford and USC.

But there should be no reason UCLA can’t break that pattern. The men’s water polo team – also coached by Wright – has had less trouble staying afloat, with four national titles in the last nine years.

It may not look like a sizable step back, but the stagnation of UCLA women’s water polo will continue to mark its decline until the program can break through again.

(Ethan Manafi/Daily Bruin staff)
Freshman setter Andrew Rowan and coach John Speraw embrace after UCLA men’s volleyball took home its 20th national championship. Shattering a 17-year title drought, Speraw shot a rocky program into greatness and is primed to do well for seasons to come. (Ethan Manafi/Daily Bruin staff)

Amelie Ionescu
Assistant Sports editor

Biggest step forward: Men’s volleyball

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And for John Speraw, it was finally time.

After 12 years at the head of the winningest program in UCLA history, the coach brought home the honor that had been eluding the team since 2006: a national championship.

His first title came 30 years ago during his time as a player on UCLA’s 1993 championship-winning squad under the greatest men’s volleyball coach in history – Al Scates.

But for Speraw’s first three years as coach, the team was unable to grace the national stage. Injuries and losses plagued the Bruins until they finally managed to right the ship slightly in 2016.

Speraw finally found long-awaited redemption in 2023, after years riddled with losses and crushing postseason moments. And with his entire starting roster returning, there’s no reason to say he can’t do it again.

Biggest step backward: Women’s volleyball

Volleyball in Westwood proved a tale of two teams this year.

In 1993, Scates also coached Michael Sealy. The latter, a four-year setter, ultimately took the helm of the Bruins’ women’s volleyball program in 2010, touting none of the early-career struggles that Speraw suffered. He led UCLA to its fourth NCAA title in only his second year coaching and tied for the most All-American accolades in a season in school history in 2015.

But that success didn’t last. UCLA suffered its worst record ever in 2018, posting a sub-.500 win percentage. And other than a standout season in 2021 – where Sealy led the Bruins to a .806 record and was named Pac-12 Co-Coach of the Year – the squad couldn’t thread its way back to dominance.

For only the third time in program history, UCLA fell short of a tournament bid in 2022. The team broke away from former coach Andy Banachowski’s historic legacy as one of the winningest coaches in women’s volleyball – and whether its death will mean its revival, only time will tell.

(Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)
Coach Margueritte Aozasa conducts a postgame interview. In her first year as the head coach of UCLA women’s soccer, Aozasa led the Bruins to their first national title since 2013. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

Grace Whitaker
Assistant Sports editor

Biggest step forward: Women’s soccer

Going into the 2022 season, there were a lot of questions surrounding UCLA women’s soccer.

The Bruins had brought on first-year head coach Margueritte Aozasa, and in the season prior, UCLA had been defeated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

But quickly after the kickoff of the season, all of those doubts were silenced.

The Bruins began collecting win after win, from top-ranked opponents to Pac-12 adversaries, to swiftly be awarded the No. 1 spot in the national rankings.

The top-ranked position carried them all the way to the national stage. In the NCAA tournament, UCLA saw multiple victories, eventually landing them a spot in the NCAA championship game against North Carolina. In the title-contending contest, the Bruins completed a 3-2 comeback win to defeat their opponents and take home the crown. After losing in the first round of the tournament last season, the Bruins were now hailed the best team in the nation for the first time since 2013.

I can’t think of a better step forward than that one.

Biggest step backward: Beach volleyball

Since the creation of the NCAA tournament for beach volleyball, the championship has always been awarded to one of the two Los Angeles rival schools: UCLA and USC.

Going into this season, the Trojans were already back-to-back national champions, taking home the crown in 2021 and 2022. But this year seemed different.

UCLA was the one at the top of the rankings this time around. UCLA was the one who dethroned top-ranked TCU and was victorious in three of its four contests against the defending champions, USC. The Bruins were even crowned the Pac-12 champions, which has historically been a predictor of the national championship winner.

But those appearances were merely a mirage.

For the third year in a row, the Trojans took home the national championship, and the Bruins were once again left in the dust. While this might not have been a massive step back from recent seasons, it was a standstill, with UCLA remaining in the same spot it has occupied for years.

(Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Redshirt junior utility Maya Brady of UCLA softball points to the dugout after a play. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Jack Nelson
Assistant Sports editor

Biggest step forward: Softball

When you regularly turn in 50-plus-win seasons in the world of college softball, a big step forward requires near-perfection.

And that’s what UCLA softball has accomplished so far.

The Bruins, finishing the regular season at 50-4, left the Pac-12 tournament at 52-5, one more win than their 2022 total. They fell a victory shy of becoming the conference’s first-ever regular-season and tournament champion.

Winning six of its eight conference series – five via a sweep – is impressive, yet UCLA managed to top that feat from a season ago, winning all eight in 2023 for 21 wins in Pac-12 play, its most since 1999.

Until Saturday, the Bruins had strung together 25 consecutive wins, not losing since March 25.

Throw in the fact that UCLA came one honor short of sweeping the Pac-12 awards, and you’ve got near-perfection.

Biggest step backward: Men’s tennis

For a program with as illustrious a history as UCLA men’s tennis, going nowhere is going in the wrong direction.

There is a surplus of statistics that document the Bruins’ recent downfall, and you can read up on that in parts one and two of my exhaustive thoughts on the matter, but simply put, UCLA underwhelmed big-time this season.

Coach Billy Martin brought in the country’s No. 17 recruiting class, a freshman group with the talent and promise of three blue chips, while the Bruins also returned the nation’s No. 3 class. UCLA finished one win above .500 – exactly where it ended a season ago.

Losing your No. 1 singles player before conference play is undoubtedly a bad break. But helmed by a legendary coach and featuring a roster of proven returnees in redshirt senior Patrick Zahraj and sophomore Giacomo Revelli, this team should not have ended the postseason winless.

A return to the NCAA tournament does not change the facts: the Bruins went nowhere in 2023, and as a result, they’ve entered free fall.

(Amelie Ionescu/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Coach John Savage has a meeting with senior left-hander Jake Saum and the rest of the infield on the mound. (Amelie Ionescu/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Joseph Crosby
Assistant Sports editor

Biggest step forward: Men’s basketball

First instinct might indicate that a step forward is a national championship game appearance for a team just two years removed from a Final Four run.

But while the team’s second straight Sweet 16 exit might not reflect it, this is without a doubt the best group Mick Cronin has coached in his time with UCLA men’s basketball.

The team claimed four of six conference awards, including Pac-12 Coach of the Year and Player of the Year, while junior guard Jaylen Clark was named the best defender in the country.

A 27-4 regular-season record highlighted a team with title hopes before injuries hindered its postseason run, and even still, the Bruins were on the verge of an Elite Eight berth.

The Bruins surged forward in 2023, and while the season may not have ended where they wanted, they certainly made waves along the way.

Biggest step backward: Baseball

UCLA baseball is on the verge of missing out on an NCAA regionals appearance.

In a vacuum, that’s not necessarily the end of the world.

But when your 2022 team finished the season one victory away from an NCAA Super Regional and the 2023 group retained most of its core, it’s definitely a step backward.

Despite losing a handful of talented players, the Bruins were set to build on the foundation of a 40-24 showing from a year ago. Instead, injuries and regressed performance ravaged the team.

Now, UCLA needs a sweep in its final series to avoid finishing conference play under .500, and with the Pac-12 tournament on the horizon, it’ll need to find something that’s been missing thus far to make it to the NCAA tournament.

Until then, this team can only be seen as a step back from 2022.

(Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)
UCLA women’s basketball huddles on the court at the Sweet 16. The Bruins are primed for an even deeper postseason run next year. (Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)

Lauryn Wang
Assistant Sports editor

Biggest step forward: Women’s basketball

While the Women’s National Invitational Tournament is on a national stage, it is not the biggest stage in college basketball.

UCLA women’s basketball knows what it is like to play in the WNIT as a consolation. But this year, competing at the magnitude of March Madness – and a Sweet 16 game no less – the difference in the experience was palpable. For senior guard Charisma Osborne, UCLA’s postseason run was formative and factored into her decision to return for her fifth season.

The Bruins have cause to celebrate their rebound campaign and success in earning a share in the national conversation again. Coach Cori Close produced a season that spurred the team’s best player in Osborne to return and convinced freshman center and Stanford transfer Lauren Betts to consider Westwood her new home, evidence that UCLA – ranked No. 4 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 – is climbing its way back to prominence, one piece at a time.

Biggest step backward: Men’s golf

UCLA golf is enduring an era of unprecedented turnover in both the women’s and men’s programs, but the latter proves to be struggling to rebuild.

That task just became much more difficult for first-year head coach Armen Kirakossian – the successor to former 15-year head coach Derek Freeman – as assistant coach Patrick Murphy resigned last week to pursue noncoaching-related opportunities.

“The program is headed in a fantastic direction,” Murphy shared in a statement on his resignation.

But UCLA men’s golf will require more robust recruiting and substantial work in the offseason if aiming higher than its latest 12th-place finish in the Pac-12 tournament is in the program’s cards.

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Sam Settleman | Sports editor
Settleman was the 2022-2023 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman was the 2022-2023 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
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.
Grace Whitaker | Sports senior staff
Whitaker is currently a senior staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's soccer, beach volleyball and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats.
Whitaker is currently a senior staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's soccer, beach volleyball and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats.
Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Joseph Crosby | Sports editor
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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