Bumped. -BN Eds.
To say that the women's volleyball team has been disappointing this year is a huge understatement. To put the season to date into context, consider the following facts:
- In the preseason national coaches poll, the Bruins were ranked 12th. Currently, the Bruins are unranked.
- In the preseason Pac 12 coaches poll, UCLA was picked to finish fifth, behind Stanford, USC, Washington, and Oregon. Currently, the Bruins are tied for ninth place with a conference record of 2-6.
- The last time the Bruins finished 6th in conference play was 1997. The Bruins have never finished lower than 6th place in the conference.
- The last time UCLA missed the NCAA tournament was 1996; it is the only time UCLA has missed the tournament.
- To qualify for the tournament this season, the Bruins would probably need to win 8 of their final 12 matches. Considering the fact that our remaining schedule includes games against #4 USC, #6 Stanford, #20 Oregon, #25 Arizona, and two games against #3 Washington, Coach Sealy's squad will be hard pressed to make the tournament this year.
What's gone wrong this season? How did the women's volleyball team end up in this predicament? Is there any reason to believe that the team can turn things around this year? What's the outlook for next season and beyond?
Pinpointing the reasons for the team's poor play isn't difficult. Our attack is simply too error-prone, our defense isn't tight, and uncertainty in player roles has, in my opinion, reinforced inconsistency in our performances. The explanation for these shortcomings is pretty simple too: inexperience. For example, our best attacker, junior Karsta Lowe, has more attacks so far this season than in her two previous seasons combined, when she was behind Rachael Kidder and Tabi Love.
Determining how much of the recent slump in our women's volleyball program is the fault of Coach Sealy is much harder. The national championship team of 2011 lost 3 valuable players to graduation: middle blocker Sara Sage, setter Lauren Van Orden, and libero Lainey Gera. Sage was readily replaced by Zoe Nightingale; in fact, because of injury, Nightingale had already played a significant role in important matches in 2011. But replacing Gera and Van Orden proved problematic for Coach Sealy. Our defense became porous without Gera--the attacking efficiency of our opponents was over 40 points higher in 2012 than in our championship season. Furthermore, neither of Van Orden's replacements (Becca Strehlow, Megan Moenoa) were convincing, which led Coach Sealy to frequently switch setters throughout the season. I've written elsewhere about the long term problems that can result from constantly swapping setters, so I won't repeat my opinion on that subject here. I understand Coach Sealy's predicament, though, as he had a team with the talent to make a deep tournament run if he could just find a setter to win the job and direct the team's attack with smart decision making and consistent timing and placement of sets.
Unfortunately, things didn't work out the way he hoped; the Bruins lost in the second round of the tournament, setter Becca Strehlow transferred to Pepperdine, and the Bruins headed into a second straight season with uncertainty at the setter position. Additionally, All-American attackers Love and Kidder graduated, leaving Coach Sealy without much experience in attack. As a consequence, there's been a lot of tinkering with rotations and substitution patterns. Too much tinkering, in my opinion, but when a team is playing poorly and losing, the coach will be subject to second-guessing no matter what he does.
This year Coach Sealy has given significant playing time to the three setters on the roster: junior Megan Moenoa, freshman Jordan Robbins, and junior Monica Stauber (transfer from Hawaii). The winner of the competition (for now) seems to be Moenoa. This coincides with Coach Sealy's decision to use Karsta Lowe in attack from both the right and left side as well as from the backcourt; previously she was used in two rotations on the right. If Coach Sealy continues with these changes, it should help the Bruins establish better rhythm and consistency in attack. In fact, in the first match that Coach Sealy implemented these changes, the Bruins notched an impressive road victory against Arizona State (ranked #22 at the time).
This weekend marks a critical point in our season. We host #3 Washington tonight and Washington State tomorrow night. If we are going to make a successful run to close out the season, it has to start tonight with a strong showing against the Huskies, followed by a decisive victory against the Cougars. At the very least, we need to build on the confidence gained against the Sun Devils and consolidate the clear improvements in our game resulting from Coach Sealy's new rotation. If we do, we may see the Bruins switch to a true 5-1 system for the rest of the season, which would be a good indication that we finally have a few answers to some of the questions that have arisen since our national championship.