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UCLA men’s volleyball sets up for Long Beach State rivalry doubleheader

The reigning MPSF Defensive Player of the Week, redshirt senior Merrick McHenry, gets ready to serve. McHenry reached a program record in kills Wednesday night with 44. (Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)

Men's Volleyball

Long Beach State
Friday, 7 p.m.

Walter Pyramid
Long Beach State
Saturday, 6 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
Pac-12 Networks

By Anthony Aroyan

Feb. 8, 2024 2:15 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 8 at 9:14 p.m.

The Beach bounced the Bruins from the NCAA semifinals just two years ago.

But last season, UCLA exercised its demons to end a 17-year championship drought.

Now, a new chapter with the program’s biggest Southern California rivals begins.

No. 4 UCLA men’s volleyball (8-2) will face off against No. 1 Long Beach State (9-0) in a doubleheader this weekend. Matching the highest-ranked opponent they have this season, the Bruins will enter a contest that brings with it a rivalry that has only grown in these last two seasons due to postseason bouts.

Coach John Speraw said a full week of preparation allowed his squad more time to improve ahead of Long Beach.

“When you have a training week like this, it allows us to ask, ‘What do we need to do to get better on our side?’” Speraw said after Friday’s win over UC Irvine. “This week, we have a chance to watch the video and get ahead of it.”

The last time these two programs matched up, the Bruins swept the Beach in the semifinals of the 2023 NCAA tournament, where the former would go on to win it all.

Roster turnover since last year’s affair has resulted in a new Bruin squad taking shape this season. One of the more glaring changes has been a rotating libero system featuring the likes of junior libero Hideharu Nakamura, freshman outside hitter Luca Curci and senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin.

“The rationale is just trying to get the best players on the court at the right time,” Speraw said. “You always ideally like to solidify things, it might be a little bit of need and who has the hot hand.”

Another development among the Bruins’ personnel has been that of redshirt sophomore outside hitter Cooper Robinson. Robinson continues to see increased court time during games, with his most impactful performances coming against Irvine.

Against the Anteaters, Robinson set a career-high in kills with 22, only to eclipse that figure two days later with 23. He ultimately managed both AVCA National Player of the Week and MPSF Offensive Player of the Week honors.

But beyond his individual performance, Robinson said the team is well-stocked with versatility.

“Our team is so deep,” Robinson said. “We have so many guys that can contribute to whatever we need and we’re all good at different things, so it’s a good situation.”

Statistically, the Bruins are third in the nation in hitting percentage at .382, blocks per set at 2.750 and kills per set at 12.76. However, Long Beach outranks UCLA in the first two categories, leading the nation in blocks per set at 3.667 and coming in second for hitting percentage at .392.

Andrew Rowan has been responsible for spurring the Bruins in hitting percentage, as he ranks fourth in the nation in assists per set with 9.97.

The sophomore setter said one goal of the team is to improve its performance behind the service line.

“We can always strive to serve the ball better,” Rowan said. “I know we miss a lot of serves, but it’s because we’re gunning for it pretty hard, and I think we can always wish to have better misses, that’s something we can work on for sure.”

Defensively, redshirt senior Merrick McHenry was the standout player for UCLA last week, earning an MPSF Defensive Player of the Week recognition. The middle blocker tallied 10 block assists and a solo block against Irvine while adding 12 kills on a .476 clip. McHenry is on the road to making Bruin history, as his 44 solo blocks now tie Garrett Muagututia’s 2010 career program record.

UCLA will tip off against Long Beach at Walter Pyramid on Friday at 7 p.m., followed by a match on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion at 6 p.m.

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Anthony Aroyan
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