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2015 UCLA Women's Volleyball Preview - When Will UCLA Be Elite Again?

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Bruins Nation examines the state of UCLA's women's volleyball program. The outlook for 2015 isn't promising.

@UCLAWomensVB

Opponent: Virginia

When: 6:00 PM PDT, Saturday, August 29, 2015

Where: Collins Court, John Wooden Center, Los Angeles, CA

Audio: Bruin Live Audio

Video: Pac-12 Los Angeles

Live Stats: UCLA Live Stats

Official Game Preview

Bruins Nation's 2015 Women's Volleyball Preview

The Basics

Preseason Rankings:

AVCA Division I Coaches Preseason Poll: 20th

Pac-12 Coaches Poll: 8th in the Pac-12

Departing Players:
  • OH Karsta Lowe
  • MB Zoe Nightingale
  • S Julie Consani
  • OH Olga Strantzali (transfer)
  • S Megan Moenoa
  • S Jordan Robbins (transfer)
Key Returning Players:
  • MB Claire Felix (Jr.)
  • OH Reily Buechler (So.)
  • OH Haley Lawless (RJr.)
  • MB Jennie Frager (Jr.)
  • DS/L Taylor Formico (Jr.)
  • DS/L Karly Drolson (Sr.)
  • DS/L Rachel Inouye (Sr.)
Key Newcomers:
  • OH Jordan Anderson (Jr.)
  • S Zana Muno (Fr.)
  • MB Alexa Dreyer (Fr.)
  • MB Kyra Rogers (Fr.)

After winning a national championship in 2011, the women's volleyball program has settled into mediocrity. While the Bruins have mostly continued to earn NCAA tournament bids, it's been several years since the Bruins have contended for a Pac-12 title. And unfortunately, that's probably not going to change in 2015. As the Pac-12 Coaches Poll suggests, the Bruins are not going to contend for a conference title this season.

The Bruins need to replace four starters from 2014. Karsta Lowe, Zoe Nightingale, and Julie Consani are gone. So is Olga Strantzali after her transfer to the University of Miami. Those players will be hard to replace, especially since there is a dearth of experience among the potential replacements. Coach Sealy has a huge task in putting together a competitive unit for 2015.

The Schedule

Although the Bruins have a busy non-conference slate in 2015 with 10 matches in 21 days, there is only one opponent (#18 Hawai'i) ranked in the AVCA preseason top-20. That gives Coach Sealy's inexperienced squad an opportunity to gel before the brutal conference schedule begins. On the other hand, UCLA's relatively soft non-conference schedule isn't the best preparation for the high level of Pac-12 play. Overall, given the youth and inexperience of the team, a gentle start to the 2015 campaign is probably for the best.

To give you an idea of how good the Pac-12 is this year, consider this: the conference has nine teams in the AVCA preseason top-25, and Oregon State is close at #29. Only Cal and Washington State don't make the top-30. Also, the Pac-12 sent 10 of its 12 teams to the NCAA tournament in 2014, so there are no easy road trips or home stands on the conference schedule for the Bruins.

In my opinion, the most critical matches for the Bruins in 2015 are the pair of contests in the Rockies in early October (vs. Utah on the 9th and Colorado on the 11th), the matches in Oregon late October (vs. Oregon on the 23rd and Oregon State on the 25th), and the games in Arizona in late November (vs. ASU on the 20th and Arizona on the 22nd). If UCLA is going to challenge for a position in the upper tier of the conference, picking up at least a split on those road trips is important.

Unfortunately, the Bruins play Cal and Stanford just once this season. The good news is that UCLA closes the regular season with a home match against #2 Stanford before (hopefully) playing in the first round of the NCAA tournament the following week.

The Players

Coach Sealy has a lot of work to do to replace the mass departure of players at the end of the 2014 season. As I mentioned earlier, the Bruins lost three starters to graduation, and another transferred. For a volleyball starting unit, that's a substantial turnover.

The big loss, of course, is OH Karsta Lowe, and there's no obvious replacement with Olga Strantzali's transfer to the University of Miami. Although Strantzali was inconsistent in her freshman season, she flashed potential that suggested that she could lead the Bruins attack at some point in the future. As things now stand, there are a lot more questions than answers about what UCLA's outside attack will look like in 2015.

Sophomore Reily Buechler is likely to fill one of the outside hitter roles. Buechler was solid as a freshman, starting all 34 of the Bruins' matches, and finishing second for UCLA in kills per set. However, she'll need to improve on her hitting percentage of .214 in the absence of Karsta Lowe.

Another probable starter as an outside attacker is junior transfer Jordan Amderson from West Virginia. Although West Virginia isn't known for volleyball, Anderson was an AVCA All-America Honorable Mention in 2014, and was named to the All-Big 12 Conference First Team. She led the Big-12 in kills per set (4.63) while hitting .234 for the season.

It remains to be seen who will be UCLA's third starting OH. Last year, redshirt junior Haley Lawless was called upon to fill in when Olga Strantzali was injured, but she failed to impress, hitting just .154 in 20 matches (8 starts). Lawless has been slowed by several injuries in the past few years, including a season-ending shoulder injury in 2012 and an ACL injury in 2013. It would be fantastic to see Haley return to her best form, but based on her limited appearances last year, her performances will have to improve substantially to merit a starting role in 2015.

Junior transfer Izzy Carmona is another option. I thought she played well in very limited opportunities last year; she is a better than average blocker, and her .316 hitting percentage is indicative of smart hitting, but based on the way she was used last year, she may be a long shot to start. Redshirt sophomore Jessyka Ngauamo is a third option, but after very few appearances as a freshman and losing the entire 2014 season due to injury, it's difficult to assess the state of her development as a Pac-12 level player. Senior Maddy Klineman played sparingly last year, and I expect the same to be true this season.

Junior Claire Felix returns for her second year as a middle blocker. She made the transition from outside hitter to middle blocker look easy in 2014, and UCLA volleyball fans hope that a year of experience in the position will lead to even better performances. In particular, Felix needs to improve her blocking, but her defensive work is likely to get better as she gains experience in the middle.

Junior Jennie Frager played very well in limited chances last year. She led the Bruins in blocks per set (1.03) as well as hitting percentage (.368). She started nine matches in 2014, and is a strong candidate to replace Zoe Nightingale as the other starting middle blocker.

Coach Sealy added two freshman middle blockers as part of his 2015 recruiting class: Alexa Dreyer and Kyra Rogers. At just 6'0", Rogers isn't as tall as most Pac-12 middle blockers, but she's very quick, so it's possible that she may be developed as an outside attacker. Although both may earn playing time this year, I don't expect either to be major contributors unless Felix or Frager is injured.

Coach Sealy's star recruit is setter Zana Muno. Muno plays both indoor and sand volleyball, and is perhaps even better outside than inside--she's a highly regarded sand volleyball player. As such, I don't consider her a "pure setter," but she certainly has the talent to take on that role. Unfortunately, none of the returning setters saw significant court time last year. Redshirt sophomore Ryann Chandler played as a libero for Pepperdine in 2013 and didn't play at all in 2014. Senior Michaela Leonard played sparingly in just five matches last year, although she was a two-year starter at San Jose State before transferring.

I hope that Coach Sealy will be decisive about choosing a starting setter for UCLA. Setter rotations, like quarterback rotations, tend to be unsatisfactory, as UCLA volleyball fans saw in 2013. I also hope that follows Coach Mora's lead and chooses talent over seniority. If UCLA is going to return to the elite of college volleyball, then the Bruins have to avoid having a new starting setter every year. Zana Muno is the long term answer at setter--there's no reason to postpone the start of her UCLA career.

After a successful first year in the program, junior transfer Taylor Formico will undoubtedly be the starting libero again. She was All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention in 2014.

Seniors Karly Drolson and Rachel Inouye were essentially starters last season in their roles as defensive specialists. Drolson played in all 34 UCLA matches, and Inouye appeared in 33 matches. Although I'm not a fan of Coach Sealy's busy match management, Drolson and Inouye performed reasonably well in their specialist roles. After taking 2014 as a redshirt season, freshman Taylor Schlener is the fourth defensive specialist on the roster.

Head Coach Michael Sealy

There was incredible excitement about the UCLA women's volleyball program in 2011 when Coach Sealy led the Bruins to a National Championship in his second season as head coach. However, most if not all of that excitement has vanished after several years of mediocrity. The low point for the program occurred in 2013 when the Bruins limped to a tenth place conference finish and missed the postseason for the first time in the history of the program.

Although the Bruins finished in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 last year, and reached the NCAA Round of 16, the performances were uneven. UCLA relied heavily on the brilliance of Karsta Lowe, which made the Bruins pretty one-dimensional in attack. With the loss of Lowe, there's legitimate concern--as reflected in the preseason polls--that the Bruins will regress significantly in 2015.

Unfortunately, UCLA can no longer be considered an elite women's volleyball program. While I think it's reasonable to argue that UCLA's slide from being a volleyball powerhouse began before Coach Sealy arrived, the slide has worsened since the 2011 national title. To put this in perspective, consider the following winning percentages of the Pac-12's top women's volleyball programs since Coach Sealy took the reins at UCLA.


Program Winning Percentage
1 Stanford 85%
2 Washington 75%
3 USC 73%
4 Oregon 60%
5 UCLA 59%
6 Arizona 50%

It's impossible to argue that UCLA is an elite west coast women's volleyball program when the Bruins are the fifth best program in the Pac-12 since 2010, and incredibly far behind Stanford, Washington and USC in winning percentage.

As a lifetime UCLA volleyball fan, seeing the women's program decline is painful. I love Coach Sealy and desperately want him to succeed in leading the women's volleyball program back to greatness, the overall results have been disappointing, and the trend is worrisome.

I've written many times that I'm not a fan of Coach Sealy's match management. Heavy use of defensive specialists limits backcourt attack options, and in my opinion, inhibits defensive development of attackers, and tends to disrupt attackers' concentration and performance. As a matter of modern practice though, Coach Sealy's management style is not out of the norm.

What is out of the norm is Coach Sealy's reliance on transfers. Nearly a third of the players on the 2015 roster are transfers. But as most UCLA volleyball fans know, Coach Sealy had some great early success with transfers, notably setter and attacker Tabi Love and Lauren Van Orden, and setter Julie Consani performed well last year. But elite programs aren't built on transfers. Elite programs fuel their rosters by recruiting elite high school players. In this respect, Coach Sealy hasn't competed with Stanford, Washington, etc... Although Coach Sealy has recruited a few gems (Zana Muno, Claire Felix, etc...), the overall quality and depth of his recruiting has been lacking.

Although I'm willing to cut Coach Sealy a bit of slack due to the entanglement of women's volleyball with the development of the sand volleyball program, there needs to be an acknowledgement that his reliance on transfers is unusual and, again, worrisome.

Whether or not Coach Sealy's seat is hot or warm is somewhat irrelevant. Expecting Dan Guerrero to be informed and engaged is a bit like expecting your 20 year old cat to stop sleeping so much and take up croquet; it's not going to happen. On the other hand, if the question is should Coach Sealy's seat be warm, then as far as I'm concerned, the answer is yes.

Expectations

Although Coach Sealy has a lot of parts to replace in constructing the 2015 edition of the Bruins, the minimum expectation for any UCLA women's volleyball team is a top-6 finish in the Pac-12 and an NCAA tournament appearance. Again, those are minimum expectations for any UCLA women's volleyball team. Realistically, considering the inexperience of this year's team, if Coach Sealy's team meets the minimum expectations, then I'll regard the result as acceptable if and only if the trajectory of the program in 2016 is upward.

I desperately want to see UCLA women's volleyball become a west coast powerhouse again. I want to see our women's volleyball program contend for Pac-12 titles every season. Any time UCLA is projected to finish in the lower half of the conference, something is wrong. When it happens three seasons in a row, something is terribly wrong. It's time for Coach Sealy to turn things around.

Go BRUINS!