When: Thursday, April 10, 7 PM PDT
Where: Pauley Pavilion
Listen: Bruin Audio
Watch.: Pac-12 Networks (Bay Area)
To be certain of qualifying for the MPSF conference tournament, the tenth-ranked Bruins need to win their remaining two matches. If the Bruins (13-9, 16-10) lose to tonight's opponent--the unranked Cal Baptist Lancers (9-13, 10-15)--the possibility of a tournament berth probably vanishes. Therefore tonight's match is essentially another must-win situation for Coach Speraw's squad. (ICYMI, I've analyzed UCLA's postseason chances in greater detail here.)
After beginning last week with a bad loss to Cal State Northridge, the Bruins fought back with a 5 set victory over #7 Long Beach State. As well as keeping UCLA in the mix for tournament qualification, the Bruins gained some much needed confidence in their new rotation. It was a big win for a team trying to salvage a season that has been defined by a series of injuries to key players.
The unsung hero of the late season positional changes is senior middle blocker Spencer Rowe. Rowe has been moved to opposite to accommodate freshman Mitch Stahl's preference for playing in the middle. Stahl started the season playing opposite, played briefly as an outside hitter in the middle of the season, and is now back to the position he played in high school. Stahl's performance has improved with the move inside, and fortunately for the Bruins, Rowe's versatility has allowed him to slide over to opposite and thrive in the position. Against Long Beach State, Rowe finished with 19 kills and hit 0.400 for the match.
Robart Page continues to play through injury. It's unclear if Coach Speraw will rest him tonight in order to have him at his best for BYU on Saturday. Against Long Beach State, Page led the Bruins with 21 kills while hitting a solid 0.325. Gonzalo Quiroga didn't have one of his better performances against Long Beach State, but he still contributed 17 kills and two service aces.
Steve O'Dell's distribution is getting better as he works to regain the form he displayed before his injury. Against Long Beach State, O'Dell notched 67 assists, which is the most assists in any MPSF match this season.
Coach Speraw has been forced into a lot of positional changes this season as a result of injuries, but a recent unexpected maneuver appears to be purely tactical: freshman opposite Jackson Bantle has been slotted in at libero. Against Long Beach State, Bantle led the team in digs with 15 and had just a single error in receiving serve. Coach Speraw may choose to use Hagen Smith as libero against Cal Baptist, however he has to be pleased with Bantle's clutch performance in the crucial win over Long Beach State.
The Lancers are led in attack by junior outside hitter Johannes Brink. Although he is the favorite target, his attack percentage of 0.247 is unexceptional. A more difficult matchup for the Bruins comes in the form of 6'1" senior middle blocker Kristopher Johnson. His size and experience could be a problem for freshman Mitch Stahl and sophomore Trent Kersten, and he's an efficient option in attack (0.412) for Cal Baptist.
Cal Baptist is a decent defensive team with reasonably good blocking. Nevertheless, the Lancers shouldn't pose much of a challenge for a focused, motivated Bruins team striving to qualify for the conference tournament. If the Bruins play fundamentally sound volleyball, they should cruise to a three set victory tonight. Under the circumstances, anything less than that will be a serious disappointment.
The official preview is here.