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UCLA men’s volleyball completes season sweep against crosstown rival USC

Redshirt sophomore libero Matthew Aziz dives to the ground for a dig. In his first two appearances of the season, Aziz notched 10 and nine digs, respectively. (Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Men’s Volleyball

No. 11 USC1
No. 4 UCLA3

By Amelie Ionescu

March 3, 2024 3:52 p.m.

This post was updated March 3 at 9:07 p.m.

Jeff Nygaard and John Speraw saw the same side of the net for four years.

The coaches brought the Bruins two national championships while playing under the legendary Al Scates.

But while Nygaard may have had the more decorated playing career, Speraw and No. 4 UCLA men’s volleyball (14-4, 5-1 MPSF) spent just over two hours outcoaching and outplaying him and No. 11 USC’s (10-8, 2-4) top-ranked recruiting class Saturday evening at Pauley Pavilion.

In a night that honored the 1981-1984 UCLA championship teams and featured an appearance by Scates, the current Bruins posted a four-set defeat over the Trojans, besting their crosstown rival in every statistical category despite a slew of starting lineup and in-game substitutions.

(Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)
UCLA men’s volleyball’s 1981 championship team alumni is honored at Pauley Pavilion. Saturday night celebrated Al Scates’ 1981-1984 championship teams during the Bruins’ showdown against the Trojans. (Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)

“Guys came in off the bench again, made an impact,” Speraw said. “Ethan (senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin) came out, went back in, made an impact. So in general, real pleased – it’s great to beat USC twice in a week. It’s hard to do.”

The debut of the duo of redshirts sophomore Matthew Aziz and senior Alex Knight – who normally plays outside hitter – at libero proved solid once again against USC.

In fact, throughout the season only one position – setter – has remained safe.

“The libero position was up for grabs for anyone, and Alex’s serve receive and my defense is a good combo,” Aziz said. “Our combo is probably the best matchup to go with for this week, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to go in and dig. I love doing that.”

The Bruins were down six midway through the second set when at 24-20, a 3-0 run courtesy of Sean McQuiggan brought the Bruins to a one-point margin. The redshirt sophomore middle blocker tallied a team-high five blocks before getting pulled in the fourth because of fatigue.

The Bruins posted a .033 hitting percentage to the Trojan’s .091 as the second frame became a battle of who could play worse – and the former came out on top.

“The second set was anomalous in a lot of ways. We don’t typically do that,” Speraw said.

The third and fourth set saw the Bruins’ usual hitting, with .588 and .481 clips, respectively, to pull the match clip up to a .382 overall.

Luca Curci – who spent more time in white than blue this year – took over at outside hitter for Champlin in the second stanza and then secured the first five kills of his collegiate career as a true freshman. In the same frame, sophomore Zach Rama jumped in for redshirt sophomore Cooper Robinson to secure a team-high 16 kills at a .480 clip in the outside hitter position.

Bolstered by chirps from former UCLA men’s basketball point guard Russell Stong and a mostly blue crowd, the Bruins took a commanding 10-5 lead in the third set and never looked back, ultimately closing the set 25-17 on a kill from the six-foot-three Curci.

(Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Outside hitter Luca Curci rises above the net to spike the ball. The newcomer put up career-high figures with five kills and five digs Saturday night against USC. (Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff)

“I’ve just been cheesing my whole career,” Curci said. “I went in there, I wasn’t too worried. I held my confidence and played my game.”

Guy Genis stepped up to the plate in the final set to help the Bruins overtake the Trojans in blocks, as the redshirt junior posted one critical solo block and two block assists – alongside a perfect two of two kills – in his singular frame at middle blocker.

Champlin returned in the fourth frame and, alongside Rama, helped close out the match in favor of UCLA to secure the season sweep against its crosstown rival.

“The intensity was pretty high there,” Curci said. “Everyone was fired, we were playing good as a team. That’s it.”

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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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