FanPost

UCLA Men’s Volleyball Looks for 20th Championship

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(Photo source: UCLA Official Site)

I know it’s not the greatest news, but hopefully this will be a welcome diversion from football and basketball talk.

The #9 UCLA Men’s Volleyball team opened its season at the UCSB Invitational January 7-8. With a 2-1 record and having defeated #11 Long Beach State, UCLA came away with a third-place finish out of eight teams participating in the tournament. #5 BYU finished first, and #10 UCSB came in second ahead of UCLA.

This week the Bruins travel to rainy Honolulu to play in the 17th annual Outrigger Hotels Invitational against #8 Penn State, #15 Ball State and #6 Hawai’i. The Daily Bruin reports that three players are down with injuries so UCLA definitely will have a tough set of matches against these powerhouse opponents. Let’s keep them in our thoughts and wish them luck as they play on the 13th, 14th and 15th!

UCLA will then come home to play the conference-opener and home-opener against #12 Cal State Northridge on Wednesday, January 19th at 7 pm at Pauley. The last time UCLA and CSUN met in the regular season, CSUN was ranked #1 and UCLA came back from 0-2 to win the game 3-2. In the pre-season this past November, UCLA swept CSUN 3-0 in the Student Athletic Center tournament. CSUN will be out for blood at Pauley next week. Let’s hope the Bruins can fight them back!

I’m pretty much a volleyball novice but if you don’t mind, I’d like to share some thoughts and observations on the team and the coming season after the jump. (And if you do mind, just skip the jump, please.)

The Standings

The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) pre-season ranking gave UCLA a #9 spot. That is pretty low for a historic program like UCLA and the team will really need to work hard to prove itself. After the first weekend, UCLA is tied for 8th with Ohio State, but not all teams have opened their seasons so it’s too early to put any weight on the season rankings for now.

The pre-season ranking is topped by USC. USC last played for the national championship in 2009, when UCI edged them out in five sets. Last year, USC went to the MPSF quarterfinals where they were knocked out by CSUN. UCI, who won championships in 2007 and 2009, follows at #2. Last year’s champion, Stanford, is ranked #4. Let’s hope UCLA can one-up them this year.

Here are the top ten teams in the pre-season AVCA ranking:

  1. USC
  2. UC Irvine
  3. Pepperdine
  4. Stanford
  5. BYU
  6. Hawai'i
  7. Ohio State
  8. Penn State
  9. UCLA
  10. UC Santa Barbara

The Coach

Coach Al Scates is back for another year, his 49th at UCLA, in pursuit of the 20th championship. His 48-year record is a whopping 1,201-267 (0.818), the highest among all Division I college volleyball coaches and one of the best in all college sports. Last year on April 9th, he got his 1,200th win against Long Beach State. Last year also marked the 47th playoff appearance under Coach Scates. By all accounts, he is a legendary volleyball coach, held in very high regard by the entire volleyball community. The big question is – does he still have it? Or has the game passed him by?

It’s hard for a casual observer and fan for me to say, especially since I’ve never played college sports. To me he is attentive and spirited at the games, and appears to engage most of the players. In some games I saw, he was able to make adjustments and guide his players to improve their game. But in other games, some players did not exhibit intensity and focus, and I don’t know if that is on the coach, the players or both. I think he’s lost out on some top recruits in recent years – I don’t know if that is reflective of his effectiveness as a recruiter, or on other factors. He did get the top recruit in this year's class. Based on the media interviews, he seems to be able to identify the problems that led to losses – service aces, bad sets, etc. and usually there is improvement in a following game or two.

So, far be it for me to second-guess a legend. As long as he is here, I’ll support Coach Scates!

The Conference

For men’s volleyball (and a few other sports), UCLA is a member of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). The schools in MPSF with men’s volleyball teams are: BYU, Cal State Northridge, Hawai’i, Long Beach State, Pacific, Pepperdine, Stanford, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, USC (12 in all).

Of the 12 schools, ten are in the AVCA pre-season top 15, and all five spots in that pre-season ranking are held by MPSF teams. Four of the last five national championships were won by MPSF schools (Penn State being the only other school to win it in the last five years). There’s no doubt, this is the toughest conference for men’s volleyball.

In order to advance to get an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, UCLA will need to win the MPSF tournament, which will begin at the end of April. It’s hard to say now what the MPSF post-season picture will look like but obviously this will be a tall order. If UCLA comes in second in the MPSF tournament, it may get an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.

The Team

UCLA lost two key players to graduation – outside hitter Garrett Muagututia and setter Kevin Ker. Muagututia, who received Volleyball Magazine’s second-team All-America honors last summer, led the Bruins in 2010 in scoring, kills and attempts. He played in 114 of 115 sets (3-5 sets per match) and was fully 25% of UCLA’s offense.

As setter, Ker was the anchor of the team. The setter often calls the plays and directs the offense. Ker came from a volleyball family (brother of Tony Ker, the Bruins’ four-time All-American libero and son of players/coaches) and was very experienced. He was also a great server – he led the team with 40 service aces.

As I mentioned, the Daily Bruin reports three players down with injuries: junior quick hitter Thomas Amberg, junior setter Kyle Caldwell and freshman outside hitter Gonzalo Quiroga. Not having the experience of Amberg and Caldwell will be tough. Quiroga, who played on the national team in Argentina, had made some contributions in the fall. All are expected to return in a few weeks or less, so hopefully this won’t set the team back much. The other players, including freshmen, seem to be stepping up as Coach Scates fills them in.

UCLA Players to Watch

Freshman outside hitter Robart Page: 7-footer. That’s all I have to say. OK, there’s more from the UCLA site. He was considered the No. 1 recruit in his class by ESPN, and named the AVCA 2010 High School 1st Team All American. Great recruiting job by Coach Scates. UCLA will very much benefit from his size in attacks and blocks.

Freshman quick hitter Gonzalo Quiroga: The 17-year-old from Argentina finished high school and joined the team in December and immediately began contributing in the December 30 exhibition game against Canada’s McMaster University. He helped lead the Argentine national team to second place in the Youth Olympics. Unfortunately he suffered an abdominal strain so he’s been sitting out but hopefully he’ll be back soon.

Junior quick hitter Nick Vogel: With the loss of Muagututia and Ker, I’m counting on the 6’-9" Vogel to be one of the leaders of the team. He was one of the leading scorers last year, with 202 kills and a 0.333 attack percentage (kills minus errors over attempts). He is deadly on the quick hits at the net, and one of the leading blockers as well.

RS junior opposite Jack Polales: The 6’-7" Illinois native is another upperclassman who needs to step up. When he’s on, he’s amazing. He was ranked second on the team last year, with 378 kills. He had double-digit kills in 21 of 30 matches. But when he’s not on, it’s kind of disappointing. In some games I’ve seen when he’s off, his timing is off, he is not making his kills and he’s missing his blocks. Granted, he might have been playing with injuries or whatnot but still, his experience is very much needed now.

Senior libero Tom Hastings: The libero is a key position in the rotation. The libero position is filled by the best defensive player on the team. When you see a great libero at work, it is a delight. There is no ball he can’t dig, no serve he can’t receive and no stray ball he can’t run to. Hastings was pretty good last year but my recollection is that he had some holes. Coach Scates spoke very highly of him to the Daily Bruin so I’m intrigued at how he’ll play this year. Hastings is also the only true senior on the team so he’ll be counted on for leadership.

Other key players: Jeremy Casebeer, Jonathan Bridgeman, Scott Vegas, Weston Dunlap

Games to Watch

All of them! But okay, there will be some crucial home games that would benefit from all of you attending.

  • 1/19 vs. CSUN – home opener
  • 1/26 vs. Pepperdine – against top five
  • 1/28 vs. USC – rivalry
  • 3/24 vs. UCI – against top five
  • 4/9 vs. Stanford – against top five and last year’s champion

There are 30 games in the regular season, 13 of them at home. It would be great if you can go to the games above and others to cheer on the team. As the season progresses, some other games might be critical to attend as well. But honestly, since there are so many teams in the MPSF, it is important to win almost every game and because of the strength of the MPSF, every game will likely be a battle. There are no freebies in the schedule.

All games listed are at Pauley at 7 pm, but please check with the UCLA official site prior to the game, as sometimes the games get moved to the Wooden Center.

Can We Win?

To be honest, I am not very hopeful. But anything can happen. No one expected the 2006 team to win the championship either.

What makes a champion? Obviously, talent, chemistry, coaching and all the intangibles. Statistics provide one way to look at the effectiveness of a team.

Here are some stats from UCLA last year compared to 2006 (sorry for the weird formatting...looks fine in Word!):

Team Stats

2010

2006

Kills

1741

2130

Attack Pct

0.288

0.315

Service Aces

173

156

Team Blocks

298.5

351

 

And how did recent champions perform? Here are the same stats for the past four NCAA champions (2006 was UCLA):

Team Stats

2010 Stanford

2009     UC Irvine

2008   Penn State

2007    UC Irvine

Kills

1804

1822

1673

1985

Attack Pct

0.356

0.320

0.399

0.351

Service Aces

148

174

171

205

Team Blocks

300.5

410

319

365

 

Note that there are other telling stats that are maintained in volleyball but I just didn’t pick them for now. I’m no statistician (and there’s probably some adjustment I was supposed to make because obviously UCLA didn’t play as many games in 2010 as the champions did), but my main take away from this is that UCLA has to improve its kills and attack percentage (reduce those attack errors!). I’m a little surprised to see the parity in service aces, but what I didn’t see in last year’s UCLA stats is the service errors, which in my minds negates the aces and my recollection was that UCLA had a lot. The blocks also seem to be a key in championship teams, which is not a surprise. It seems like Coach Scates has the building blocks to get us there. I’m just not sure if this is the year.

Sorry this became so long. I thought I’d just hit on a few key points but I find it hard to be concise. If you’ve read this far, thank you.

Hope you can come out and cheer the team onto another championship this year!

Go Bruins!

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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