Last night the #3-ranked UCLA Men's Volleyball team soundly defeated #9 Cal State Northridge in three straight sets, 25-18, 25-15, 25-12 as they improved to 8-1 on the season, 3-0 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) conference.
Sadly, the game was played in front a very, very sparse crowd on Collins Court at the John Wooden Center. So I'm writing now, with my grainy unfocused photos as usual, to encourage everyone to attend a game or two or more and salute the legendary Coach Al Scates in his 50th and final season.
I'm sure many of you read the recent LA Times feature on Coach Scates. He was Mr. Volleyball before college volleyball was major. In the past 49 years, Coach Scates has led UCLA to an unmatched 19 NCAA championships and amassed a record of 1,217-282 (0.812). He's definitely a fun coach to watch. He's focused on the game, takes notes, discusses strategy with the assistant coaches, and gets up to counsel individual players throughout the game. And if a referee makes a questionable call, Coach Scates is right up there protesting (or at least, asking for clarification). 50 years coaching strong, that's Coach Scates.
To be honest, the past couple of years have been a bit disappointing. The team has had talent, but seemed to falter in odd ways. This year, the team has been playing cohesively and with focus and energy, much more than I've seen the past few years, and that has been very encouraging.
I'm not going to be all pollyanna-ish and say this is the magical season when the team will send off Coach Scates with his 20th championship (ok there, I've said it. Jinx, please go away now). The team is definitely not without flaws (hello, 132 service errors) but I like the way they are playing.
The 2012 squad has seven seniors, including key starters - Setter Kyle Caldwell, Quick Hitters Weston Dunlap and Thomas Amberg, Opposite Nick Vogel, and Outside Hitter Jeremy Casebeer. Outside Hitter Ryal Jagd and Quick Hitter Jack Polales have played in key situations in the past. Caldwell, who converted to setter from outside hitter last year, has improved tremendously and has set up perfectly-timed sets for quick and opposite attacks, as well as snuck in dinks and quick hits himself. In recent interviews, Coach Scates gives a lot of credit to Caldwell, who apparently rallied the troops during the offseason and arranged student-only practices and got the players in shape before the season started.
Dunlap and Amberg have been deadly this year so far, dishing out quick hits and overpass attacks down the middle. Amberg also has been tremendous in his blocking this year, reading the opposing attackers' timing and chiseling in the blocks into the opposite court. He leads the team now with an average of 1.3 blocks per set. It's really exciting when he blocks an attack and the announcer yells "theeeee roooff!!"
Vogel and Casebeer have also solidly established their roles and are amassing decisive kills. Vogel's cross court kills have been nearly indefensible, and Casebeer's backcourt attacks have been a serious threat to the opposing team, especially when sneaking up from behind the quick hitter.
Sophomore Outside Hitter Gonzalo Quiroga has been an amazing force this year. A native of San Juan, Argentina, he was a key player last year with his precise attacks but this year he's even better. He's stronger and his cross-court kills have been even more potent. His serves have also been very good for the most part, with many service aces (a team-high of 9 so far), which is always exciting to see. A bonus if you're at the games - stay a bit after the game to watch the players cool down and stretch. Watch Quiroga - his flexibility is absolutely incredible, and I'm sure one of the secrets to his power and jumps.
Redshirt Sophomore Evan Mottram, who transferred from UC Santa Barbara, fills the critical role of libero, which was left vacant with Tom Hastings' graduation last year (Hastings now serves as an undergraduate assistant coach, which I think is great for continuity). In the few games I've seen him this year, I've been impressed with his innate ability to know where the ball is coming - he's very often where the balls land or should land, and as a good libero should do, rolls around all over the court to dig the balls. His receiving is not perfect but clearly Hastings is working with him on that, and his instincts seem very, very good so that is really good to see.
Overall, the team has been playing more thoughtfully and strategically. The passing has been more deliberate, the setting more controlled, the attacks more deadly. They employ more misdirection and fake sets than I remember in the past few years, which has been very effective in the quick hits and backcourt kills. Coach Scates and his assistants make adjustments during the games to exploit the opponents' weaknesses or silence their strong points. I highly encourage everyone to come and watch the team and coaches in action. It's really fun to watch.
The last two years, I thought that the team was really lacking in blocking and made too many service errors. The service errors are still a worry, but the improvement in the blocking has been really encouraging. Granted, they've not played the best of the best (actually, they did play UCI and lost) and the season is young so it's too early to say. But they are definitely starting out right and it'll be exciting to keep watching them the rest of the season.
UCLA men's volleyball is a member of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) conference, the premier men's volleyball conference in the nation. Currently, 11 of the top 15 ranked teams in the nation are from the MPSF. 16 of the last 20 national championships have been won by MPSF teams. This year, BYU is the team to beat - currently ranked #1 in the nation, they are undefeated in the MPSF. UCLA definitely faces an uphill battle, as they do every year. The upside is that if they can make it out of the MPSF as a winner, they'll definitely be battle-tested and ready to face other conference champions.
As mentioned earlier, the team's off to a great 8-1 start, 3-0 in the MPSF (the loss to UCI came during the Santa Barbara Invitational tournament and apparently didn't count as an MPSF match). They did win the Outrigger Invitational two weekends ago in Hawai'i. In the last six games, the Bruins only dropped one set. ONE SET out of 19. Yes, that's awesome. In the past two years, I've seen this team (well, not the exact team since some players were different) get a little too comfortable or full of themselves and make careless mistakes and drop unnecessary sets. I really like it this year that they're intent on getting the sweeps. Even when the opponents catch up or take the lead, the Bruins don't give up. That's exciting to watch, and something we should all cheer on for sure.
Statistics-wise, UCLA has been measuring up well but with some key weaknesses. Their overall attack percentage of 0.367 is good so far but again, it's early and most of the wins came against non-conference, unranked opponents. As reference, BYU's attack percentage is 0.385. Last year, UCLA's attack percentage at the end of the season was 0.287 while last year's champion, Ohio State, had an attack percentage of 0.343.
UCLA's service percentage is pretty low at 0.801, compared to opponents at 0.818. Like I said, still too many service errors. In rally scoring, service errors are such a bummer because not only do you give the opponent a point, you lose the chance to serve. It's like a technical foul in basketball. Ohio State's service percentage last year was 0.846. UCLA ended last season with a 0.820.
As I mentioned, blocking has been an area of great improvement this season, not only from Amberg but from the team as a whole. UCLA has had 2.8 blocks per set (as of last weekend), while opponents have had 1.5. BYU is at 2.78 blocks per set this season so far. Ohio State last year had 2.5. UCLA last year had 2.24 blocks per set. I'm a firm believer in defense in volleyball and maintaining the high blocks per set will be one of the keys to Bruins' success this season. That, and, sorry to sound like a broken record, minimizing service errors.
And now, I apologize for completely jinxing the team and season and will take the blame now for the next loss or two.
The next home game is Friday, January 27th, 7 pm at the Wooden Center. UCLA will host #15 UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos roared through the MPSF last year and went all the way to the NCAA Championship game, where they lost to Ohio State. There is only one returning starter from last year's squad, so UCSB has had some challenges, including a pair of losses to Stanford and Pacific last weekend. That's not to say UCLA should take them lightly. Junior outside hitter Miles Evans had 16 kills against Pacific and 20 against Stanford.
After Friday's homestand, UCLA goes on the road across the Southland and to Hawai'i, not returning home until February 24th when they host Cal Baptist at 7pm at the Wooden Center. After that, there will only be seven home games to watch Coach Scates and his final team compete. All of the remaining seven games will be against MPSF opponents, including the two final games on April 6th and 7th against current-#1 BYU.
It's a shame that Coach Scates can't finish out the season in Pauley but that's no reason for the Bruin Nation to not show our appreciation for his years of commitment and dedication with a proper send-off. Please make plans to attend a home game and cheer on our Bruins and Coach Scates.
Notes on attending: Since seating in the Wooden Center is limited, you must obtain tickets to enter, even if you are Wooden Athletic Club members or have the Olympic Sports Card (you can still get in free in those cases, you just have to get a ticket, usually at the door). I would encourage everyone to check with the box office ahead of time to purchase advance tickets, especially later in the season when hopefully, attendance at the games will improve!
When at the games, be sure to enter your name in the drawing for a free sandwich from Jersey Mike's and two free tickets to the next home game. There's also a trivia contest where you can win a team-autographed mini-volleyball. And the team will throw mini volleyballs or t-shirts into the crowd as starters are announced. And you can also buy your UCLA Bruins volleyball gear there, too.