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UCLA men’s volleyball solidifies lineup as the team returns to face Stanford

Redshirt sophomore libero Matthew Aziz dives to save the ball. After instability at the libero position this season, coach John Speraw has assigned Aziz and redshirt senior outside hitter Alex Knight to the role. (Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Men's Volleyball


Stanford
Friday, 7 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
Pac-12 Bay Area
Stanford
Saturday, 5 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
UCLA Live Stream

By Connor Dullinger

March 28, 2024 6:39 p.m.

The Bruins are returning to Pauley Pavilion after 19 days.

No. 2 UCLA men’s volleyball (16-4, 5-1 MPSF) will face No. 3 Stanford (9-9, 2-4) for its first of three doubleheaders that remain in the regular season. The teams’ rivalry heightened in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals in 2022, where the Cardinal bested the Bruins in five sets to thwart the latter’s conference title hopes.

Despite the recent break in action, UCLA is entering this matchup off of a five-match win streak featuring victories over Ohio State, Penn State and USC. Stanford most recently snapped a three-game losing streak with a win over BYU.

While the time away could have impeded the Bruins’ recent success, senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin said it was vital to prepare for winter quarter’s final exams.

“Some guys are using the break to recover physically. Other guys like myself are using this break as an opportunity to hunker down and prepare for our final exams,” Champlin said.

The break also allowed UCLA to solidify its lineup going into the final games of the MPSF play and the postseason. Throughout the season, coach John Speraw experimented with the libero position – giving Champlin, redshirt senior outside hitter Alex Knight, redshirt sophomore libero Matthew Aziz and junior libero Hideharu Nakamura each a nod and seeing what they might produce.

The Bruins have struggled to replace former libero Troy Gooch. Going forward, Speraw said he plans to rotate between both Knight and Aziz.

“Aziz works hard every single day, and he is such a competitor and a great athlete. From a personal and emotional standpoint, he is a great guy and a great teammate,” said redshirt senior middle blocker Merrick McHenry. “The same goes with Alex too. Alex is a super selfless athlete, and he is exactly what we need as a leader and captain for this squad.”

Using two different liberos throughout each match is an uncommon move for most volleyball coaches. However, the depth of the Bruin squad has been one of the team’s primary strengths, as Speraw has been able to serve the hot hand and integrate multiple players off the bench into the starting lineup.

Redshirt junior outside hitter Grant Sloane contributed 16 kills after coming off the bench in UCLA’s 3-1 victory over Long Beach State. Sophomore outside hitter Zach Rama also added 16 kills off the bench in a 3-1 win over USC.

In addition to stability at the libero position, Speraw said UCLA’s aggressive match play, particularly behind the service line, has anchored its success this season. He added that confidence stemming from tenacity on the court may prove crucial later in the season and also help compensate for the loss of last year’s title-contributing figures such as Gooch and former middle blocker J.R. Norris IV.

“From a serving perspective, it’s important to be aggressive, particularly with the way the game is played today,” Speraw said. “There’s a general philosophy that we want our guys to go out there, be free and compete. While our style is not freewheeling, we want to go out there and take it to other teams.”

Speraw said his team’s confidence comes from both past experiences and the pressure that comes with being a UCLA volleyball player.

“We have talked about the postseason a lot, and the guys all saw it last year. They know what it takes to compete and win,” Speraw said. “They’ve all been competitors for a long time, and they didn’t just show up at UCLA. They’re here because they’re one of the best in the country, so we know they’re all capable.”

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