Wednesday, 7 June 2023

International Volleyball

Led by McHenry, Rowan, UCLA seeks to end NCAA men’s volleyball title drought

Led by McHenry, Rowan, UCLA seeks to end NCAA men's volleyball title drought

Mention UCLA athletics, and many immediately think of the Bruins’ wildly successful men’s basketball team. That program owns 11 national championships.

But that total is only slightly more than half of the number won by the UCLA men’s volleyball program. The Bruins have set the (blue and) gold standard in the sport with 19 national championships.

Here’s the rub: The Bruins haven’t won an NCAA title since 2006.

That doesn’t seem to bother coach John Speraw, who played on two UCLA title teams (1993, 1995) and was an assistant on three more (1996, 1998, 2000).

But in his 10 seasons leading the Bruins, a national title has eluded him. Despite that, Speraw doesn’t consider the topic verboten. In fact, it’s something he and his players talk about openly.

“We’re proud to be part of the heritage here,” he said. “We’d like to contribute to that. We’d like to bring back a championship to Westwood. It’s a goal of ours, and it’s something we discuss.

“It is not a weight. It’s something we want to do, and we’d be proud to be the team that brought it back.”

The NCAA volleyball committee seems to think this could be the year the Bruins return to the top. UCLA (29-2) earned the No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday, the MPSF-champion Bruins play the Big West’s Long Beach State in the first semifinal, followed by Big West-champion Hawai’i vs. EIVA-champion Penn State.

UCLA beat Long Beach in both of their February meetings. The Bruins’ only losses are to Penn State and Hawai’i.

“I think Hawaii is the favorite in that, despite their (No. 2) seeding, they’re the returning two-time champions with a senior setter (Jakob Thelle) who has been there before and real good leadership and athleticism.”

Reverse psychology? Maybe, because it’s not like the cupboard is bare in Westwood. Finding a weakness on UCLA’s roster is pretty much nitpicking.

It’s almost like the Bruins are playing one of the best teams in the country during intrasquad scrimmages.

UCLA’s Merrick McHenry hits against Pepperdine last month/Andy J. Gordon photo

“The practice gym every day is so high level,” said junior middle Merrick McHenry. “The reps that the ‘A’ side is able to get day in and day out, and the ‘A’ side getting beat multiple days. The ‘B’ side is just pushing us every day.

“It’s also just great to see when the people on the ‘A’ side might not be having their best nights and we need someone to put a…

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