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Bruins in Paris

Superlatives: Daily Bruin Sports recognizes UCLA’s extraordinary 2023-2024 athletes

(Designed by Tyler Cho/Assistant Design director)

By Felicia Keller, Ava Abrishamchian, Alexis Hinkle, Benjamin Royer, Anthony Aroyan, Noah Massey, and Lex Wang

June 10, 2024 4:14 p.m.

Whether their season culminated in glory or not, UCLA’s student-athletes had lots to be proud of throughout the 2023-2024 year. Whether it was a late-game breakthrough or consistency throughout the season, these eight players scribbled their name into Bruin history books. Take a look at who has earned recognition from Daily Bruin Sports.

Male Athlete of the Year: Ethan Champlin
Lex Wang, Daily Bruin senior staff

Senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin waits defensively. (Michael Gallagher/Assistant Photo editor)

Once he followed through on his final swing as a Bruin, Ethan Champlin was a two-time national champion.

The senior outside hitter led UCLA men’s volleyball to back-to-back NCAA titles with 42 kills, two aces and 21 digs across the final three games — underscoring his deserving status as the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

But for the AAU James E. Sullivan Award semi-finalist — an honor given to 30 athletes each year at a collegiate or Olympic level — being an athlete hasn’t just been about skill or experience. Nor has it been about the numbers.

It’s been about selflessness.

When libero Troy Gooch graduated in June 2023, the short list of potential successors didn’t include Champlin. But with replacements sophomore Coleman McDonough and junior Hideharu Nakamura seemingly unable to meet coach John Speraw’s expectations, it was Champlin — the three-time AVCA First Team All-American — who temporarily filled the hole.

The Oceanside, California, local provided stability as libero when the team desperately needed it — and in doing so, may have forfeited his shot at a more decorated outside hitter resume.

As he kicks off a professional career in Europe, Champlin — who, even as a senior, carried travel luggage for the Bruins despite it being an underclassman chore — will be memorialized in UCLA history, not least for his sheer athleticism.

He will be remembered for his humility, heart and service to the team.

Female Athlete of the Year and Rookie of the Year: Lauren Steele
Ava Abrishamchian, Daily Bruin reporter

Freshman goalkeeper Lauren Steele lifts her arm to pass. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Not everyone can answer to the call of greatness.

But when the summon reached Lauren Steele, she responded immediately.

In just her first season for UCLA women’s water polo, the freshman goalkeeper saved 268 goals that stretched from rivalry matchups to championship games. Her excellence in the water limited a majority of the Bruins’ opponents to 10 or fewer goals. With a season high of 21 goals saved, UCLA’s net was an impenetrable fortress.

And, she did it all after graduating high school a semester early.

Steele was an unconventional star from the onset of her water polo career. Born in Connecticut, she moved to California during the COVID-19 pandemic and joined the 6-8 Training Academy. Her excellence wasn’t difficult to discover — her journey to Westwood teemed with gold medals and an assortment of accolades.

At the end of the Bruins’ undefeated campaign this season, Steele was awarded the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament — a seemingly obvious recognition for the newcomer.

This, topped with a range of MPSF awards, selection as a women’s finalist for the Peter J. Cutino Award and a national championship all in her first year of college, set an unbeatable foundation for her future.

Steele is at the forefront of a dynasty.

Now, she has greatness on speed dial.

Coach of the Year: Adam Wright
Felicia Keller, Daily Bruin senior staff

Coach Adam Wright gathers his team by the side of the pool. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

One undefeated regular season is impressive on its own.

But two — and a national championship — is nothing short of extraordinary.

While UCLA men’s water polo fell just short of a championship title, coach Adam Wright still recorded his first undefeated regular season since 2015.

The Bruins steamrolled multiple teams, finishing the year 26-3.

After the men’s season ended with a loss to California in the NCAA championship on Dec. 3, Wright had only 48 days to shift focus.

UCLA women’s water polo started its season the same way the men did – undefeated.

But unlike their counterparts, the women never stopped. Wright and company picked up the women’s program’s first national championship since 2009 — the same year he took over the men’s program.

Multiple members of the men’s team traveled to Berkeley to celebrate the win with the women’s team and their shared coach, emblematic of the tight relationship between the programs.

Wright has, perhaps, deserved this award every year since he took on dual duty of the programs in 2017 — no easy task in the modern world of coaching and recruiting.

And if anyone still doesn’t think he’s the coach of the year, just ask the MPSF, who gave him the honor for both programs this year, making him the first coach since 2016 to win both awards within the same school year.

Male Rookie of the Year: Luke Powell
Alexis Hinkle, Daily Bruin senior staff

Freshman Luke Powell prepares his next stroke. Powell place within the top-10 in four of his first five tournaments. (Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

A freshman rarely comes out of the gates swinging.

It typically takes a rookie a couple of seasons to find their footing and comfort in the collegiate setting.

But this year, UCLA men’s golf freshman Luke Powell cinched four top-10 finishes in his first five tournaments, collected a medal in his second-ever tournament and earned a spot in the team’s starting lineup from the outset.

Powell made his Bruin debut in the team’s first tournament of the season. After shooting more than 10 birdies and totaling five bogeys throughout his three rounds of play at the Husky Invitational, Powell landed in third place.

Not only did he place the highest of any Bruin golfer, but he also secured the best finish of any non-host player in the entire tournament.

Powell’s top-three finish — a difficult feat — marked the best debut by a UCLA freshman since Kyle An placed 19th just under a year prior. But An’s top-20 finish didn’t even scratch the surface of Powell’s response.

And the rookie didn’t stop there.

UCLA marshaled a different lineup for its second tournament in East Hampton, New York, but Powell’s role remained the same.

He once again shot all three rounds under par en route to the Bruins’ second-lowest finish in 11 years with a 17-under 199. Powell finished first in just his second-ever collegiate tournament.

Powell didn’t find as much success in the succeeding tournament but bounced back with a third and ninth-place finish at The Cal Poly Invitational and Southwestern Invitational, respectively, before the rest of regular-season play.

The freshman’s accomplishments earned him a spot in the starting lineup of the Pac-12 championships and NCAA Stanford Regional.

Alongside veterans like junior Omar Morales and the coaching prowess of coach Armen Kirakossian, Powell will drive his squad to further improvement in years to come.

Most Improved: Cooper Robinson
Anthony Aroyan, Daily Bruin staff

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Cooper Robinson raises his arm to spike the ball. (Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

Cooper Robinson’s transformation from role-player to a UCLA men’s volleyball stalwart began with Troy Gooch’s departure after last season.

With a hole in the lineup, Coach John Speraw threw the whole kitchen sink to find the right replacement.

Senior outside hitter Alex Knight was one player who rose to the occasion for the Bruins, ultimately playing libero throughout the season. Covering the outside hitter mantle alongside Ethan Champlin and junior outside hitter/opposite Ido David, redshirt sophomore Robinson stepped into the limelight.

Robinson saw sporadic action in 2023, playing just 22 sets in a rotational capacity. This season, he nearly quadrupled this total — seeing action in 86 frames, tallying 227 kills on a .326 clip.

Robinson first played a significant role for UCLA in its doubleheader against UC Irvine, tallying 22 kills in the first match and notching season highs in kills, digs and blocks with 23, eight and five, respectively, in the second.

Following the Irvine series, Robinson became a staple in the Bruins’ starting lineup, playing an integral role in the team’s 15 wins off 16 games to close the season.

In the NCAA tournament, Robinson capped off a breakout season with double-digit kill performances against No. 4 seed Irvine and No. 2 seed Long Beach State. In the championship, Robinson notched 12 kills on a .417 clip, lifting the national title trophy alongside his teammates for back-to-back years.

Robinson cemented himself as not only one of the team’s most important players in 2024 but also a cornerstone for its future after the departure of several key pieces.

Unsung Hero: Rashad Ruff
Noah Massey, Daily Bruin contributor

Graduate student right-hander Rashad Ruff pitches at Jackie Robinson Stadium. (Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

Rashad Ruff came through for John Savage in a bind.

Pitching in an oft-injured UCLA bullpen, the graduate student right-hander was one of few high-leverage options consistently available for the coach, remaining in the game until it was decided — regardless of how long that took — on multiple appearances.

The Coppin State transfer served primarily as the Eagles’ closer in 2023 — tossing 33 innings with a 3.82 ERA and amassing five saves — but, as is the case with most closers, never threw more than three innings in a single outing.

Numerous injuries to the Bruin pitching staff expanded Ruff’s role beyond that of an ordinary closer during his time at UCLA.

If the game was winnable, regardless of pitch count or workload, Ruff remained on the bump as the best available option. In his longest appearance of the season, Ruff tossed 4.2 innings in relief, amassed 79 pitches and allowed a single earned run.

Ruff wound up with six total losses on the season. However, each of those outings was a multi-inning effort at the minimum, with two of them surpassing three innings of work.

The Moreno Valley, California, local ultimately finished second in the Pac-12 in appearances and fourth in saves, while sporting a 4.02 ERA over 47 innings and striking out 54. Although the only accolade Ruff received was an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention, Savage said the graduate student is likely to be picked up in this summer’s MLB draft.

Jack of all Trades: Gabriela Jaquez
Felicia Keller, Daily Bruin senior staff

Sophomore Gabriela Jaquez (left) stands with a towel. The forward joined UCLA softball as a pinch runner prior to the NCAA tournament. (Left to right: Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin staff, Courtesy of Ross Turteltaub/UCLA Athletics)

Gabriela Jaquez added softball pinch runner to her toolkit this year.

After playing a full 34-game season for UCLA women’s basketball — where she averaged 10 points and 5.6 rebounds a game — Jaquez answered the call from UCLA softball, joining the team’s roster ahead of the NCAA tournament.

In addition to putting in a full shift for women’s basketball — where she produced three double-doubles as part of the team that ranked No. 2 for eight straight weeks — the sophomore forward doubled up, becoming the third active dual-sport athlete at UCLA, and the first woman to join the prestigious group.

Jaquez made her first appearance on UCLA’s diamond as a pinch runner on May 23, in a 8-0 run-rule win over Georgia. She entered at first base and made the trip around the bases to record the first run of her collegiate career.

Simply put, Jaquez has proved valuable on two separate rosters this year, rising to the occasion for her own team and adding her name to another when it was needed.

And while Jaquez didn’t feature at the Women’s College World Series in the Bruins’ three games prior to elimination, she unequivocally demonstrated her aptitude to perform in a second Division I sport.

Transfer of the Year: Rafael Real Vergara
Benjamin Royer, Daily Bruin senior staff

Senior attacker Rafael Real Vergara lifts his arm to shoot. (Juliet Zhang/Daily Bruin)

A slingshot or a cannon — any metaphor to describe the ball flying toward the net, yet none fully describe Rafael Real Vergara’s power.

From anywhere in the pool, UCLA men’s water polo’s threat level rose exponentially, forcing opposing defenses to hound the senior attacker — opening up his teammates for unobstructed shots. His dynamism led the Bruins to the NCAA tournament final.

Individually, Real Vergara ended the year as a Peter J. Cutino Award finalist — an honor recognizing the best collegiate player in the nation. And it was for good reason.

Capping off his collegiate career as a four-time All-American — after his senior year transfer from Long Beach State to UCLA — the Brazilian standout emerged as the MPSF’s best, leading the conference with 71 goals in his first campaign donning the blue and gold.

Real Vergara formed a formidable duo with fellow attacker, redshirt senior Jack Larsen, providing Coach Adam Wright an easy day at Spieker Aquatics Center relying on two of the best — up front — in the nation.

“His passing abilities are special, and the reality too is he could be probably scoring a lot more every game,” Wright said in October. “But he’s trying to work within the group, and that is putting us in a position to overall be successful.”

Real Vergara was special — and his one season in Westwood will go down in the record books.

Needed a goal? He was the answer.

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Felicia Keller
Keller is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the men’s soccer, swim and dive, women’s water polo, and softball beats. She was previously a contributor on the swim and dive and women’s water polo beats and a contributor in the News and Photo sections. She is also a second-year sociology student.
Keller is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the men’s soccer, swim and dive, women’s water polo, and softball beats. She was previously a contributor on the swim and dive and women’s water polo beats and a contributor in the News and Photo sections. She is also a second-year sociology student.
Hinkle is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's tennis, men's golf and track and field beats. She was previously a reporter on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats. She is also a second-year sociology student.
Hinkle is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's tennis, men's golf and track and field beats. She was previously a reporter on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats. She is also a second-year sociology student.
Benjamin Royer | Alumnus
Royer was the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was also a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats in 2022-2023. He studied communication and graduated in 2024.
Royer was the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was also a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats in 2022-2023. He studied communication and graduated in 2024.
Lex Wang | Editor in chief
Wang is the 2024-2025 editor in chief. She was previously the 2022-2023 Opinion editor and the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor. She is Copy, Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Design, Photo and Video.
Wang is the 2024-2025 editor in chief. She was previously the 2022-2023 Opinion editor and the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor. She is Copy, Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Design, Photo and Video.
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