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UCLA Men’s Volleyball: The Injury-Riddled Bruins Need to Chop the Trees

After a tough week that saw UCLA lose two key players to injury and then drop a crucial pair of matches to BYU, the Bruins need to rebound against Stanford this evening or risk falling out of contention for the MPSF title.

#4 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (9-3, 6-2)

Opponent: #8 Stanford (6-4, 3-2)

When: Thursday, February 9, 2017, 6:00 PM PT

Where: Maples Pavilion, Stanford, CA

Audio: None

Video: Pac-12 Networks

Live Stats: Stanford SideArm Stats

Official Match Preview

A lot can change in a week.

Last Thursday the second-ranked Bruins were in first place in the MPSF with a perfect conference record as they headed to Provo for a two-game set against BYU. Today the Bruins sit in third place in the MPSF standings, tied with four other teams with a pair of conference losses. And nationally, UCLA has dropped two places in the AVCA Coaches Poll, with conference rivals Long Beach State and BYU moving up to claim the second and third spots in the poll.

But undoubtedly the biggest change for the Bruins last week was the absence of leaders Mitch Stahl and Jake Arnitz. Unfortunately that's a challenge that the Bruins will have to confront again this week, as neither player is likely to play tonight when UCLA travels to northern California to face eighth-ranked Stanford (6-4, 3-2).

The Cardinal is one of the four teams that have two losses in MPSF competition and desperately need to avoid picking up another loss for fear of falling too far behind the conference leaders. With the unbalanced schedule in the MPSF this season, this is the only time that the Bruins and Cardinal will meet in the regular season in 2017. However, Stanford still has a pair of matches against BYU and has a late season trip to Honolulu for a really difficult road test against #5 Hawai'i, so it's really crucial for the Cardinal to scrape together as many home wins as possible to remain relevant in the MPSF title race.

For UCLA, the challenge is more complex. Despite losing both matches against the Cougars in Provo, UCLA's effort on Friday was heroic even though the Bruins eventually lost in five sets (26-28, 23-25, 25-13, 25-22, 16-18). Given how little time Coach Speraw had to prepare his team in the absence of Stahl and Arnitz, and given the Cougar's overwhelming home court advantage, the Bruins did a tremendous job of fighting back from two sets down, and outplayed the Cougars for much of the match. Sadly the Bruins lost most of the crucial points when sets 1, 2, and 5 were in the balance.

On the other hand, Saturday's result wasn't good, but it wasn't quite as bad as it looked. The Bruins were thoroughly beaten in the opening set (13-25), and even though the following two sets were close (23-25, 29-31), UCLA never managed to gain a foothold in the match. That said, each of the players called upon to start in place of Arnitz (Dylan Missry, Michael Fisher) and Mitch Stahl (Oliver Martin, Eric Sprague) played reasonably well, showing the incredible talent and depth of Coach Speraw's squad.

However, it's a bad sign when a team's most effective attacker for the week is a setter. That's not to take away anything from Hagen Smith's outstanding performance in Provo, but it shows the importance of experience and leadership in big matches. As those who watched the weekend battles knows, when BYU needed a kill, it turned again and again to All-American opposite Ben Patch. Without Arnitz and Stahl, UCLA relied on a balanced attack, and it kept the Bruins competitive but it wasn't enough to win big points down the stretch.

It's hard to say that more of the same will be good enough tonight against Stanford. Although it's fair to say that BYU is an elite team and Stanford is not, it's probably also fair to say that UCLA was an elite team with Stahl and Arnitz, but it has yet to prove that it is an elite team without them. Therefore, this will very likely be a tight contest. Considering the stakes involved, it's a contest that the Bruins really need to win.