#5 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (10-5, 7-4)
Opponent: #2 Long Beach State (12-2, 8-1)
When: Saturday, February 18, 2017, 4:00 PM PT
Where: John Wooden Center, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Streaming Video: UCLA Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
As you can see from the "GameDay" tweet above, today's battle between UCLA and Long Beach State is being billed as a "top-5 match up." However, as UCLA's slide enters its third week, the Bruins no longer look like or deserve to be regarded as an elite team. Unfortunately, after losing two of its last three games against second-tier MPSF squads, the Bruins will be battling teams like Stanford, UC Irvine and Pepperdine for third place in the MPSF this season.
For UCLA volleyball fans, it's painful to acknowledge how quickly the Bruins have fallen from national championship contender to an MPSF also-ran. That's not to say that UCLA couldn't still earn an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but any path to that destination will likely require the Bruins to win the conference tournament. For a team that seemed to have an excellent chance of winning the MPSF title this season and thereby becoming a near certainty for a spot in the NCAA tourney less than three weeks ago, it's been a precipitous fall.
As UCLA volleyball fans know, the injuries to All-Americans Jake Arnitz and Mitch Stahl just ahead of the Bruins' trip to Provo was a serious blow. It's not surprising then that UCLA lost both matches against BYU as bench players were pressed into service and roles were redefined. On the other hand, it's a bit surprising that the Bruins were still struggling even after Stahl returned to action and the level of competition offered by the Bruins' opponents dipped. Losses to Stanford, Pepperdine, and most recently, Cal State Northridge reflect UCLA's inability to adapt quickly enough to its circumstances.
The Bruins have battled in each of their recent matches. Five-set matches have become the norm in the past few weeks. The Bruins are fighting, but they aren't winning enough of their battles, and crucially, they continue to lose important points. For example, in their recent loss to CSUN, the Bruins had a chance to wrap up the match in the fourth set. Tied at 22, two straight attack errors by UCLA gave CSUN key points that allowed the Matadors to earn a fifth set.
In a sport like volleyball where matches are often decided by a couple of points, the margin for error is small. The fact that the Bruins committed 30 attack errors and 8 errors in serve reception against the Matadors goes a long way to telling the story of the match. The consistency the Bruins enjoyed in the first half of the season appears to be gone now, and the level of competition in the MPSF is simply too good for inconsistent play to be compatible with winning.
The news goes from bad to worse for UCLA. Mitch Stahl suffered a severe ankle injury in UCLA's loss to Cal State Northridge, and he appears unlikely to be back in the lineup anytime soon. And today the Bruins' opponent is perhaps the best team in the west: second-ranked Long Beach State.
The 49ers have a very efficient attack that averages over 13 and a half kills per set to lead the MPSF. The Beach also has two of the best attackers in the nation in the sophomore tandem of OPP Kyle Ensing and OH TJ DeFalco. In fact, Long Beach State is awfully good everywhere, from senior libero Andrew Sato (who leads the MPSF in digs/set) to sophomore setter Josh Tuaniga (who leads the MPSF in assists/set) to senior MB Amir Lugo-Rodriguez (who leads the nation in blocks/set).
Needless to say, the Bruins have their work cut out for them today. While there's no magic cure for the Bruins' problems, UCLA has to dig down deep to find a way to get better and stronger as the postseason looms. The Bruins' chances of capturing the MPSF title this season are gone, but with a lot of hard work and a bit of good fortune on the injury front, UCLA can still sneak into the NCAA Tournament with an upset or two in the conference tournament. In that regard, a loss today isn't fatal, but it certainly makes the task increasingly difficult.