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Can UCLA men’s volleyball solve its libero problem before NCAAs?

Ethan Champlin receives the ball. The senior outside hitter has rotated into the libero position as UCLA men’s volleyball lacks stability in the role. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

By Amelie Ionescu

March 6, 2024 4:46 p.m.

John Speraw has a problem.

A libero problem.

From senior Ethan Champlin to redshirt senior Alex Knight to freshman Luca Curci, UCLA men’s volleyball’s outside hitters have been thrown in with hopes something would stick. Both sophomore Coleman McDonough and junior Hideharu Nakamura have had their libero leashes pulled after posting numbers unsatisfactory to the coach.

“Right now, it’s just trying to figure out what our best seven guys are, or eight, if we’re doing the double libero,” coach Speraw said. “And that’s what it has been this week, and we’ll continue to evaluate moving forward.”

[Related: UCLA men’s volleyball completes season sweep against crosstown rival USC]

At the start of the season, the Bruins looked on top of the world: a court full of NCAA All-Americans at any given time, arguably the deepest bench in the country and a unanimous No. 1 ranking in January. The only real hit they had taken was libero Troy Gooch, a decorated yet unassuming transfer from Purdue Fort Wayne who donned the blue and gold throughout the 2023 season.

Gooch wasn’t any tournament MVP; he only secured an AVCA All-American honorable mention and seemed not to deter the Bruins’ potential for a repeat national championship.

But four dropped games – three against lower-ranked opponents – demonstrated just how integral a consistent libero is to a team.

McDonough – Gooch’s most likely replacement from the 2023 squad – has seen playing time as a serving substitute more often than not. And the duo of Nakamura and Curci looked solid before the Bruins lost to Long Beach State at the site of the 2024 national championship game.

(Left to right: Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff, Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)
Freshman outside hitter Luca Curci (left) gets on his toes to receive the ball as junior libero Hideharu Nakamura (right) high-fives his teammates after a game. (Left to right: Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff, Vivian Le/Daily Bruin)

“Our one goal is to win this thing at the end of the year,” said sophomore setter Andrew Rowan. “So whatever we have to do to be in the best shape possible to do, that is what we’re going to do – and whether that’s moving outside to libero or whatever it may be, if it’s best for the team, I know none of the guys have a problem with it.”

When Champlin came in to man the handle, the Bruins upset the then-No. 1 Beach at home. Simultaneously, a critical match-high and career-high 17 digs throughout the contest ostensibly cemented his role entering conference play. His passing and defense proved decisive through the next two contests, where UCLA swept Pepperdine home and away.

But Champlin’s six reception errors against a lower-ranked BYU team on the first night of the MPSF doubleheader – including back-to-back errors to hand the Cougars the fourth set – resulted in yet another five-set heartbreaker for UCLA.

“Coming in, going from outside to libero certainly made me feel like I needed to do more, which shouldn’t be the case,” Champlin said. “But my coaches settled me into that position and told me to just keep being me and communicating with my teammates.”

It was midway through the second night – with the Bruins down 2-1 – when Speraw switched UCLA’s stalwart from libero back to outside hitter. Champlin proved an offensive goldmine for the Bruins, picking up a match-high 14 kills at a .650 clip in just two sets to propel the team to a split season series against its mountain rivals.

[Related: In two 5-set thrillers, UCLA men’s volleyball splits doubleheader against BYU]

Speraw gave Knight, who started at libero in two matches during non-conference play because of an injury, the blue jersey in Champlin’s place, and the four listed liberos on the roster remained patiently waiting on the bench.

“The level of communication is different when you’re playing libero as opposed to outside,” Champlin said. “Your energy has to be great the whole time, and I have no problem doing that.”

With the position up for grabs, redshirt sophomore Matthew Aziz got the first starting libero nod of his career against USC playing defense and Knight operating the reception. The duo’s work ushered back-to-back victories for UCLA over its crosstown rival for the third straight year.

The Bruins have been through six names and seven combinations in 18 matches. With eight contests left until the postseason, UCLA’s record might need an MPSF tournament title for a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Speraw needs a solution.

And Speraw needs it fast.

May is coming.

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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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