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UCLA men’s volleyball looks to prolong rivalry winning streak ahead of USC

Senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin turns to his team to celebrate after a point. Rotating in as a libero this season, the veteran leads UCLA men’s volleyball with 90 digs. (Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin)

Men's Volleyball

Thursday, 7 p.m.

Galen Center
Pac-12 Insider
Saturday, 5 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
UCLA Live Stream

By Connor Dullinger

Feb. 28, 2024 5:40 p.m.

Another rivalry weekend in Westwood is fast approaching.

After UCLA men’s basketball dropped a 62-56 decision to USC on Saturday, a different Bruin crew will have the chance to retrieve the crown.

No. 4 UCLA men’s volleyball (12-4, 3-1 MPSF) will take on No. 11 USC (10-6, 2-2) in a doubleheader that will begin Thursday evening at the Galen Center before the Bruins host the Trojans on Saturday.

USC enters the series off back-to-back losses against No. 1 Grand Canyon, where it fell 3-1 and 3-0. But with wins against No. 5 UC Irvine, No. 18 UC San Diego and No. 12 Ball State, the Trojans are on the edge of beating their fourth ranked program of the season.

“It’s great to have an opportunity to step on the court with USC, and we are all really excited about it,” said coach John Speraw. “They’re a much improved team from last year, and I know it’ll be another battle.”

UCLA will have the chance to build on recent success against ranked opponents, as it cliched 7 out of 10 of its last top-10 encounters. That stretch includes a four-set victory over then-No. 1 Long Beach State that came Feb. 10.

However, the Bruins have already lost four matches on the year – double its total losses last season.

“As the season goes on, we’re going to continue to find our groove and find what works for us and what doesn’t,” said redshirt senior middle blocker Merrick McHenry. “I would say we haven’t found our identity yet, but I definitely think we’re making steps and moving in the right direction.”

Thursday and Saturday may boil down to defensive proficiency for both sides. Both the Bruins and Trojans slate in at top three in the nation in blocks per set. UCLA averages 2.72, which ranks them at second, while USC averages a 2.7 mark – good enough for third.

The offensive end is a similar story. Both teams rank top five nationally in hitting percentage, but the Bruins edge out their crosstown rival with a .021 margin.

“Our connections and our offense is pretty unstoppable right now,” McHenry said. “I think that’s something that we’re just going to continue to get better at and then continue to use and take advantage of.”

The Bruins have hit above a .400 clip in two of their last three contests, including a .491 clip against No. 6 BYU.

Numbers aside, the historic rivalry that exists between the Southern Californian programs will create an atmosphere hard to overlook.

The Bruins have taken all six of their last meetings against the Trojans – four of which took place at the Galen Center. The Trojans are on a three-year winless drought over the Bruins, with their last victory emerging in 2021.

“Playing USC certainly adds more significance for us because the crosstown rivalry is so historic,” said senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin. “Playing USC comes with a little bit more meaning.”

While the Bruins may not alter their performance, Speraw said the significance of the game is different than any other.

“I’m a Bruin, and all Bruins everywhere know that it’s always bigger when you play USC, and it’s okay to say that,” Speraw said. “When our two schools play, there’s always something more on the line.”

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Connor Dullinger
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