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Reft revitalizes UCLA women’s volleyball despite rocky season

UCLA women’s volleyball head coach Alfee Reft watches the court. In his first year, he has metamorphosed the program’s culture and values. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

By Amelie Ionescu

Nov. 29, 2023 3:46 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 30 at 11:37 p.m.

Déjà vu is in the air.

UCLA women’s volleyball missed out on an NCAA tournament appearance for the second straight year Sunday after yet another up-and-down season plagued by injuries and unforeseen losses.

Except this year proves a little different for one key reason – Alfee Reft.

[Related: UCLA women’s volleyball hires Alfred Reft as new head coach]

The first-year head coach heaved a faltering program up with his tenacity, refreshing the entire assistant coach roster and ensuring the retrieval of the Bruins’ veteran anchor, Anna Dodson, who entered the transfer portal at the close of the 2022 season.

Trust and community became driving points for the success of the squad, the redshirt senior middle blocker said.

“We have a great culture, and I have great teammates,” Dodson said. “It’s always just encouraging and enlightening when I have such a great support staff – especially the staff as well – just people that I can go to. And I know I have their trust, and they have my trust. And so that just keeps me consistent throughout the game.”

Nevertheless, even with two major transfer portal gains and a variety of experience at the helm, the beginning of UCLA’s season read like a rebuilding year.

The team dropped five of six contests to kick off Pac-12 play. Reft’s duties with the U.S. Women’s National Team kept him away from the squad for two of those losses, leading to an unsolidified lineup through the preseason and into conference games.

But with five victories in the Bruins’ final seven games, the end of the season created a discourse around the national contender Reft truly could make out of his squad. Highlighted by a close 3-2 loss to then-No. 2 Stanford and two five-set wins over then-No. 9 Washington State and then-No. 24 USC, the Bruins were able to end the season at a straight .500 conference record and on the cusp of a tournament appearance.

(Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
The Bruins high-five one another after winning a point. Despite narrowly missing an NCAA tournament appearance, the squad has displayed growth and resilience, besting three ranked teams toward the end of the season. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

Tangible growth between matches underscored the team’s drive, with six of seven split season series going in favor of UCLA the second time around.

“This team keeps showing us, but they’re just resilient,” Reft said after the Bruins swept Arizona on Nov. 5 to avenge an early-season loss. “I’m proud of this group of young women.”

Despite a struggling backcourt and a reliance on middle blockers to bolster its hitting percentage, grit never drifted from the squad.

Iman Ndiaye, whose rocky 2022 season resulted in a sub-.200 clip, emerged as key to offensive production, leading the team in kills with 375 and earning her first career Pac-12 weekly award Monday. The senior outside/opposite hitter landed herself among the top three on the team in blocks, aces and digs in what is potentially her final season with UCLA.

Fellow senior Audrey Pak, who primarily took on a backup role in past years, surfaced as the starting setter midway through the season and showcased her versatility, recording 39 dumps and becoming one of the most prolific blockers on the team. She secured three consecutive aces in the fifth set of her last game donning the blue and gold, propelling UCLA into a lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.

[Related: UCLA women’s volleyball triumphs over Trojans for first time in two years]

“This season has meant so much to me,” Pak said. “I love our team, and it makes such a big difference having coaches who believe in you and give you a pathway to excel.”

Reft inherited a struggling program that had previously relied on a few key members to boost its chances at a championship. From there, he was able to cultivate a squad that worked together and fought until the last ball dropped – a statement he said was key to success less than a year ago.

Although it may look like déjà vu, Reft did promise Bruin fans “one hell of a ride”.

And in the seasons to come, he has the capacity to deliver.

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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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