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Beat breakdown: Why UCLA women’s volleyball fell short of 2023 NCAA tournament

UCLA women’s volleyball team converge in a huddle. The Bruins narrowly missed out on an at-large bid for the 2023 NCAA tournament. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

By Ira Gorawara, Rahaf Abumansour, Nicole Augusta, and Una O'Farrell

Dec. 3, 2023 4:15 p.m.

This post was updated Dec. 3 at 9:58 p.m.

After introducing an entirely new cohort at the program’s helm and phasing in eight fresh faces to its roster, UCLA women’s volleyball was poised for a shot at the 2023 NCAA tournament. But its hopes crumbled after the Nov. 26 selection show guaranteed the Bruins would miss out on a postseason appearance for the second season in a row. The Daily Bruin Sports women’s volleyball beat hypothesizes the season’s shortcomings for the Bruins.

Una O’Farrell
Daily Bruin contributor
Shortcoming: Lack of depth

In a game of musical chairs, having too few seats leaves you standing – and spectating from the sidelines.

After missing the chance to compete in the 2023 NCAA tournament, the Bruins are left to reassess in what aspects they fell short.

UCLA’s 10-10 conference record positioned it sixth in its final season in the Pac-12 – a record that won’t cut it in the Big Ten next season or in its effort to secure a tournament appearance for the first time after a two-year drought. The four top teams in the Big Ten have, at this stage, all qualified for the third round of the NCAA tournament, and each boasted .750-plus winning records this season.

But this season, depth deficiency and repeated inconsistency plagued the Bruins. They racked up double-digit service errors in 10 of their first 11 games – an area coach Alfee Reft and his team had said was their strong suit.

The team only swept four teams during conference play – one of which went on to exact revenge in the ensuing redemption match.

During the short-term absence of redshirt senior middle blocker Anna Dodson due to injury, UCLA suffered a loss to California – a team it had previously swept on the road – and failed to develop the remainder of its roster to cover the loss of its star player.

However, this is not to say an NCAA tournament appearance is impossible for UCLA next year. Under Reft’s first year of leadership, the Bruins attained three wins against ranked opponents and concluded their season with five victories out of their seven final games.

With a novel environment and fresh competitors next season in the Big Ten, hopefully a peek at the 2024 NCAA tournament will expand.

(Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
Graduate student middle blocker Desiree Becker springs her knees net-high to strike a kill. In her first season as a Bruin, Becker led the squad with 136 blocks – good enough for fifth in the Pac-12. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

Rahaf Abumansour
Daily Bruin reporter
Shortcoming: Sustained consistency

One of Aesop’s Fables, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” forged a time-honored phrase.

”Slow and steady wins the race.”

But that proverb was not entirely taken to heart in the Bruins’ fable this year.

Despite introducing an entirely new coaching staff and retaining key veterans, the Bruins missed their second-straight shot at an NCAA tournament appearance as they struggled with a formidable foe: consistency.

Over the course of the season, repeated games were streaked with intermittent struggles to maintain consistency.

An 8-2 nonconference slate paved a promising trajectory for Reft’s inaugural season with UCLA. The squad bested ranked opponents – including then-No. 23 Hawaiʻi – but the steady wins would quickly see a termination.

The Bruins’ inconsistency proved clear when they couldn’t beat the same team twice – a feat that occurred five times this season. Most notably, they were unable to conquer California the second time around, even though the first time the pair went head to head, the Bruins swept the competition.

On the court, consistent hitting percentages were like a seesaw for UCLA. It saw an efficient .402 before striking in the negatives at -.021 against Oregon.

By the end of Pac-12 play, the Bruins had carved in a 18-12 overall record – a marginal improvement from last season’s 16-13 record.

With consistency and their existing Reft-instilled values, the Bruins can ensure a redemptive NCAA run next season.

(Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
The Bruins assemble after winning a point. They will now shift gears in their focus to next season after this year’s 10-10 Pac-12 slate was insufficient to secure them a berth in the postseason tournament. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

Nicole Augusta
Daily Bruin senior staff
Shortcoming: Down-to-the-wire finishes

UCLA women’s volleyball pulled up to the starting line with its most recent NCAA tournament appearance in the distant rear view.

A new staff at the wheel – alongside Dodson returning to shotgun – seemed to be the green light the Bruins needed to navigate back to success.

But in close races, the Bruins were not first to reach the checkered flag.

It wasn’t a matter of losing momentum. In fact, one-third of UCLA’s winning matches were secured on a comeback. And it can’t be said that the team just couldn’t keep up – over 80% of its losses contained at least one set that hinged on a three-point margin.

Ultimately, the chance was just too high that the Bruins wouldn’t take home a win when it came down to the wire. Nine of UCLA’s 30 matches reached a fifth set, but it lost almost half of them. And of these tiebreaker losses, 75% would come immediately after a win in set four.

Time and again, UCLA would climb the mountain just for the harness to unfasten at the top.

But an equivalency to last year’s result deserves a second take. A new team is on the court, characterized by the unity, chemistry and individual improvements increased by Reft – whose praises for his players were repeatedly reciprocated.

If the Bruins can finish what they start, the key to next year’s NCAA tournament is theirs.

(Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
Sophomore outside hitter Cheridyn Leverette elevates for a kill. UCLA women’s volleyball’s pin hitters managed to muster a .248 hitting percentage on the season – an improvement from last year’s .230. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

Ira Gorawara
Assistant Sports editor
Shortcoming: The whole was less than the sum of its parts

In my preseason scouting report, I dissected the Bruins position by position.

Each region of the court was established – and after voids bedeviled last year’s Bruins, things looked better set for UCLA’s 2023 campaign.

With Reft’s revamping of the team’s helm and his efforts in recruiting top-ranked players, there wasn’t a glaring subpar element on the team.

Dodson – UCLA’s all-around linchpin – withdrew her decision to enter the transfer portal a month after the end of last season. As the sole Bruin to secure a berth in this season’s All-Pac-12 team, she proved decisive in UCLA’s front court. Dodson graced the court alongside explosive offensive stalwarts in UCLA’s pin hitters. There was no lack of firepower on the front row.

With established setters in senior Audrey Pak and freshman Ashley Mullen – who showed flashes of serious potential – and a promising defensive ace in junior defensive specialist/libero Peyton Dueck, my breakdown proved generally valid. The Bruins had an answer on all regions of their half.

But – contrary to the saying – ​​the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The seamless integration of each individual Bruin seemed elusive, as a lack of on-court synergy was resounding in Pauley Pavilion. With 201 receiving errors on the season, the Bruins were above just one Pac-12 team in the category to finish with the second-highest total, demonstrating a lack of communication and unity in handling opponent’s serves.

The Bruins missed out on a conference-winning record to cap off their season – uncharacteristic of a team that boasts individual proficiency at all corners of the court.

So in UCLA’s 2023 dance, each move was a powerful note and each play a potent verse – but together, the symphony fell short of its best possible crescendo.

We’re left on a cliffhanger of potential, and a 2024 sequel could reach that precipice.

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Ira Gorawara | Assistant Sports editor
Gorawara is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the men's volleyball, women's volleyball, men's tennis and rowing beats and is a Copy contributor. She was previously a reporter on the men's volleyball and rowing beats. She is also a second-year communication and economics student.
Gorawara is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the men's volleyball, women's volleyball, men's tennis and rowing beats and is a Copy contributor. She was previously a reporter on the men's volleyball and rowing beats. She is also a second-year communication and economics student.
Augusta is a 2023-2024 Slot editor and Sports senior staff member on the softball beat. She was previously a Copy and Sports contributor on the women's volleyball beat. She is also a third-year human biology and society student.
Augusta is a 2023-2024 Slot editor and Sports senior staff member on the softball beat. She was previously a Copy and Sports contributor on the women's volleyball beat. She is also a third-year human biology and society student.
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