UCLA men’s volleyball claims ‘sewer rat’ mentality in 2024 national title run
UCLA men’s volleyball claims ‘sewer rat’ mentality in 2024 national title run

By Ingrid Leng/Daily Bruin

By Ira Gorawara

May 19, 2024 at 11:44 p.m.

Sewer rats patrol the underbelly of a city.

Possessing a nose for thrill and a knack for adventure, they masterfully navigate labyrinthine tunnels.

The intrepid and grimy rodents thrive in the unforgiving underground.

In 2024, the rat – or the embodiment of it – emerged above ground.

“That little critter runs around a bunch of muck and turns out, nothing bothers them,” said coach John Speraw. “What we really wanted to be was a bunch of sewer rats.”

UCLA men’s volleyball – personifying the indomitable and unyielding nature of the subterranean sleuth – in turn, titled its national championship-winning conquest “Sewer Rats.”

[Related: UCLA men’s volleyball downs Long Beach to seize back-to-back titles]

Speraw deployed outside hitter Zach Rama midway through the fourth frame of the national title game, with his team’s shot at grandeur hanging in the balance. The sophomore’s presence was barely registered – a silent sentinel through the falling action of the set.

A miscalculated swing filed the sophomore’s name into scoresheets, and four more points passed in hushed suspense for Rama.

But when UCLA breached the 20-point threshold, Rama sprang into the foray.

“One thing that we all had, all of us here and myself in spades, was just trust that he (Rama) could go in and make it happen,” Speraw said. “He’s unflappable. And we know that, and we know what he’s capable of becoming and being, and I figured there might be a time this weekend when it would be Rama time. And it was the right time. Tell you what, Rama’s a damn sewer rat.”

(Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
Sophomore Zach Rama rocks his arm back to spike the ball. The outside hitter notched three kills late in the final set of the 2024 men’s volleyball national championship. (Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

After taking a hit to his ankle early in the duel, Rama took yet another blow in the waning moments of the fourth frame. Long Beach opposite Skyler Varga hung in the air to strike the ball. Instead – failing to puncture UCLA’s block – he descended under the net, colliding with Rama’s leg.

Evident ankle soreness couldn’t infect the Bruin maestro. Rama etched his sweet spot into the hardwood of Walter Pyramid with three consecutive kills – inching his team closer to its third 25-point mark of the night.

Rama – not one be relegated to a seat on the bench – fought through the nagging pain.

The resilience that distinguished Rama’s performance served as an emblem of the team’s victorious crusade in 2024 – one that landed at the program’s 21st trophy.

Following the departure of Troy Gooch, Speraw’s arsenal lacked a lethal weapon – its libero.

Juggling between six players and seven combinations through the season’s first 18 matches, the Bruins were at a crossroads and required immediate action.

“Whatever we have to do to be in the best shape possible to do, that is what we’re going to do,” Rowan said in early March. “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.”

Following a 19-day hiatus from action, Speraw enlisted redshirt senior outside hitter Alex Knight and redshirt sophomore libero Matthew Aziz to share the mantle of libero.

(Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
Redshirt senior outside hitter Alex Knight (left) and redshirt sophomore libero Matthew Aziz (right) celebrate with their teammates. (Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

It clicked. In a display Charles Darwin could have written about, the Bruins confronted their abyss headfirst, seamlessly adjusting their troupe.

“Evolution is a function of environmental stress. And adaptations – changes, random – occur in our genome, and then our immune systems are conditioned in particular ways based on exposure to pathogens and such,” Speraw said. “And this theme keeps coming through the entire world and biology and life and in psychology as well.”

Rather than succumbing to the disorder that characterized the season’s outset, UCLA cemented its libero duo – one that constructed a championship-caliber defense.

Similarly, the life of a sewer rat is fraught with barriers – but conquest through dim tunnels is unattainable without bypassing trials.

In a field of seasoned chefs, Remy – the infamous sewer rat from “Ratatouille” – was all but fearless. His inventive flair in the kitchen earned him his stripes among culinary luminaries.

(Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
After clinching the final point of the national finale, the Bruins converge in jubilation. (Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

UCLA touted the nation’s highest RPI in 2024 – pointing to its demanding regular season schedule. The squad defeated every conference opponent while boasting the most formidable record against top-10 teams. The Bruins and Remy converged at this very juncture – even the most intimidating competition bracket couldn’t pierce their relentless personas.

“They (sewer rats) don’t have allergies, they can eat all the peanuts they want,” Speraw said. “They can do whatever they want because their immune system is conditioned to things that really matter.”

So, when Speraw spoke to his team before winning Westwood’s 122nd trophy, he could only relate it back to the sewer rat’s plight – the pesty creature resembled the season that was.

“I told them the story about life is about challenging stress,” he said. “When you have stress – that makes you better.”

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