When: Saturday, April 19, 7 PM PDT
Where: Rob Gym, UC Santa Barbara
Listen: Bruin Audio
Follow: UCSB Live Stats
A late season surge by the Bruins, capped by a Senior Night win over first place BYU, has earned Coach Speraw's squad an MPSF conference tournament berth as a 5 seed. Tonight the Bruins open the tournament with a matchup with against 4 seed UCSB at Rob Gym. Given the fifth-ranked Gauchos' terrific record in conference play at Rob Gym (11-2), the ninth-ranked Bruins face a tough challenge against a very experienced UCSB team.
After the return of several injured players and two key position changes, the Bruins (18-10, 15-9 MPSF) enter the tournament with a three game winning streak. Coach Speraw's inspired move of second team All-MPSF senior Spencer Rowe from middle blocker to opposite has solidified UCLA's block and has provided a significantly stronger attacking threat from the outside. Since the transition to opposite, Rowe is averaging a remarkable 17 kills per match. Rowe's move to the outside has opened a spot in the middle for Mitch Stahl, who has been selected for the All-MPSF freshman team. In the Bruins' critical must-win match against BYU, Stahl stepped up with an amazing 6 aces and hit a solid .364. Coach Speraw's other key strategic change was moving Jackson Bantle (All-MPSF freshman team) to libero. Bantle has really taken to the role, bringing stability and organization to a UCLA defense that was desperately in need of improvement.
The Bruins' attack continues to run through first team All-MPSF senior outside attacker Gonzalo Quiroga and second team All-MPSF senior outside attacker Robart Page. Quiroga keeps on posting huge numbers in attack and as a server. Against BYU, Gonzalo matched Stahl with an incredible 6 aces and led the Bruins with 14 kills while hitting 0.370. Although Page has not been as effective late in the season while he's struggled with an injury, he is still a very valuable weapon for the Bruins as his 13 kills against BYU demonstrates. Unfortunately, Page had a bit of trouble returning serves against the Cougars, leading Coach Speraw to use freshman Jake Reeves as a situational substitute to return serves. It's a potential weakness that the Gauchos will probably try to exploit, so it will be interesting to see if Coach Speraw goes straight to the substitution late in the first set. Of course the return of sophomore setter Steve O'Dell from injury has been a key factor in the Bruins' late season improvement. Against BYU, O'Dell made great decisions in directing a balanced UCLA attack, and his contribution to the UCLA block is often overlooked but shouldn't be underappreciated. With O'Dell getting back to the top of his game, the Bruins' attack is starting to look unstoppable again.
The Gauchos (17-8, 16-8 MPSF) are led by first-team All-MPSF sophomore setter Jonah Seif. At 6'8", Seif presents unusual problems for opponents with his ability to attack, and he helps to form an effective block on the outside. UCSB's leading attacker is second-team All-MPSF redshirt senior opposite Evan Licht, although Licht's attack percentage is unimpressive due to a large number of hitting errors. Since UCLA's defensive weakness has been defending against strong side attacks, Licht is unlikely to cause a lot of problems for the Bruins. However, All-MPSF honorable mentions Matt Hanley (redshirt senior outside attacker) and Jake Staahl (redshirt junior middle blocker) are much more efficient attackers, and Hanley in particular has been hitting especially well lately. Finally, All-MPSF honorable mention redshirt senior libero Chad Kingi anchors the Gauchos' defense and provides experience and leadership.
UCSB is a strong defensive team, ranking high in blocks per set and digs per set. The Gauchos also serve well, but they're just average in attack. If the Bruins handle the Gauchos' serve cleanly and provide setter Steve O'Dell a platform for directing a balanced attack, the Bruins should be able to defeat UCSB and advance to the conference semifinals--a likely rematch with BYU in Provo.
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