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Amid top-4 shakeup, UCLA men’s volleyball finds strength in roster depth

Coach John Speraw devises a play during a match at Pauley Pavilion. Speraw’s squad dropped to the No. 5 position after two losses in its past four games. (Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)

By Amelie Ionescu

Jan. 30, 2024 1:11 p.m.

A four-team circle of parity has fallen.

And UCLA is at the center of it.

The world of collegiate men’s volleyball used to be dominated by several major teams, with an upset scarcely visible. And yet, No. 3 Hawai’i dropped its second match of the season on Jan. 5 against an unranked Loyola Chicago team after sweeping that same foe two days prior.

Then-No. 9 Penn State stunned then-top-ranked Ohio State on Thursday night just hours before then-No. 17 UC Santa Barbara brought down then-No. 2 UCLA men’s volleyball.

Last year, a change-up of that magnitude would have been almost unfathomable. The top-four teams remained consistent through the entire season despite shake-ups among the programs. Now, UCLA slates in at No. 5, both Penn State and Ohio State have dropped out of the top five altogether, and Stanford occupies the No. 4 spot. No. 2 Grand Canyon’s rise up the ranks rounds out the impact of the weekend’s upsets.

One month into the season, four undefeated teams remain, and only one was a key player in last year’s cycle.

Despite dropping four ranks since the start of the season, the Bruins still believe in the depth of their team.

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Cooper Robinson, who entered the court off the bench in the Bruins’ past two matchups, said the roster is unmatchable.

“We all contribute,” Robinson said. “We have the deepest team in the country and you show it every time you play.”

(Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)
UCLA men’s volleyball’s bench celebrates after the team scores a point. The Bruin bench has had significant offensive production this season, as 15 different players have already seen playing time. (Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)

In eight contests this season, 15 different players have earned playing time. Kill, block and dig leaders vary with almost every match as coach John Speraw’s squad searches for a winning formula.

[Related: UCLA men’s volleyball focuses on roster depth ahead of Ohio State, Penn State]

Speraw isn’t the only coach looking for the right ensemble to win matches. UCSB coach Rick McLaughlin – whose team was on a five-contest decline at the time – switched some players around to pull off the upset win and showcase the squad’s passing ability against UCLA.

“It was a little bit of a different lineup,” Speraw said. “Clearly it’s a ball control lineup, and that’s for sure their best lineup.”

Out of last year’s final four, UCLA is the only team to return its starting six, and even still, the Bruins lost their key passer in libero Troy Gooch. Hawai’i lost National Player of the Year Jakob Thelle, Penn State lost First Team All-American Cal Fisher, and Long Beach State has Bulgarian freshman Lazar Bouchkov now starting at middle blocker.

Despite both of UCLA’s losses coming from five-set contests, Speraw satisfied his curiosity on his team’s endurance after the squad bounced back to sweep UC San Diego on Friday night.

“I know yesterday (Thursday) was a long match – five-gamer – so I was interested to see how we would be physically,” Speraw said. “But everybody worked, everybody played hard, energy was great.”

Instead, the culprit is mental, said senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin, but so is the fix.

“My teammates are tough,” Champlin said. “We don’t like to lose, but we’re also very tough, resilient, … and I’m just really proud of the guys and how they stepped up.”

Speraw added that the emotional fatigue around being the defending national champions ushers additional pressure, but is something the group needs to work on as the season progresses.

Men’s volleyball’s circle of parity might have shattered, but that doesn’t mean the Bruins’ dreams for May have to follow suit.

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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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