After jumping out to a two-set lead on BYU in the MPSF semifinals, the No. 4 UCLA volleyball team lost its stride and let the top-ranked Cougars crawl back into it.
The Bruins took the first two sets in hard-fought fashion (25-23, 25-21), but couldn’t sustain it in Provo in front of a hometown-heavy crowd. They just couldn’t close it out. BYU dominated the third set to the tune of 25-18, and then erased an early 7-1 deficit in the fourth set to shock UCLA.
With the score knotted 24-24, the Bruins committed a critical service error to give the Cougars advantage and the serve. The ensuing kill ended the set, 26-24, and sent the match to a decisive fifth. On the night, the Bruins gave up 18 free points on service errors, but this was the most crushing of them all, crippling whatever confidence UCLA still had.
In the final set, BYU walked to the finish and into the MPSF finals, beating the Bruins by a score of 15-10. The most glaring stat of the night was the blocking advantage, which favored the Cougars by a staggering 11 blocks (22.5-11.5). The fifth set alone saw the Bruins blocked six times. And quite fittingly, match point came on a devastating BYU block.
The loss is a real gut-wrencher, as it likely means the end of the season for UCLA. Had the Bruins won, they’d be right in the mix for placement in next week’s NCAA Championship at Pauley Pavilion. But with the loss, their odds of making the four-team title field are pretty thin.
Three of the four teams are designated by automatic bids from the various volleyball conferences. UCLA (21-11) missed its chance for the MPSF auto by losing last night, and doesn’t have the resume required to earn the single at-large selection. The loser of the MPSF final, which pits No. 1 BYU (24-4) against No. 2 Long Beach State (24-7), is expected to get the nod for the fourth spot. And even if that weren’t the case, the Bruins probably wouldn’t get in over the other semifinal loser, No. 3 UC Irvine (23-7), either.
So for all intents and purposes, we can cap the pen on the 2013 UCLA volleyball season. It was a successful first year for head coach John Speraw, who faced the tall task of replacing a legend like 50-year veteran Al Scates. Winning national titles is undoubtedly the goal at UCLA, but fighting tooth-and-nail in the MPSF gauntlet is a good start.
The Bruins should be better in Speraw’s second season, as there is only one senior on the roster this year. All of the core players are returning to the team, including outside hitter Gonzalo Quiroga. The Argentinian sensation will be a senior in 2014, and has led UCLA in points and aces for most of his career.
If Speraw hopes to hang banner No. 20 in Pauley for men’s volleyball soon, he should try to get it done…well ASAP. Of the seven Bruins that saw the court against BYU, six will graduate after next year. The stacked senior class is headlined by Quiroga and constitutes the bulk of UCLA’s experience. And while I’m sure Speraw is doing what he can in recruiting to bolster the roster, the drop-off between classes is enormous.
It’s championship or bust for UCLA volleyball next season, and then it could be time to rebuild. No pressure, Coach Speraw.