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Even After Losing Several Key Players, UCLA Women’s Volleyball Still Boasts Young, Talented Crew

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The Bruins are headlined by outside hitter Riley Buechler and a handful of returners.

Reily Buechler is one of the top returning Bruins.
Joe Piechowski

It’s as if UCLA women’s volleyball coach Michael Sealy will walk into his team’s locker room, erase everything he had written on a whiteboard and say “back to square one.”

The changes may not be that dramatic, but following the departure of several key players from last year, the Bruins will look plenty different this season.

No. 13 UCLA thrived for much of last season, compiling a 27-7 record and advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament before being ousted by Minnesota. It was the Bruins’ best season since 2011 – a national championship squad – in terms of overall record, though they finished third in the Pac-12 standings.

Sealy took a risk at the beginning of the season, knowing his team didn’t boast as much size and defensive prowess as most opponents. He reverted to a 6-2 formation, rather than the typical 5-1 in UCLA’s first conference game against crosstown rival USC.

In his seven years at the helm, Sealy rarely modified his game plan, let alone completely changed the formation. The 5-1 formation is what led his lone championship team to the NCAA finals. It was a crucial reason for why the coach sports a 164-65 record in Westwood.

But the 6-2 worked.

The setting tandem of then-redshirt junior Ryan Chandler and rising sophomore Kylie Miller proved effective. It took a few weeks for the Bruins to become accustomed to the offensive-based game plan. Sealy even changed some players’ roles, including rising junior Zana Muno, who moved from setter to outside hitter.

This year should be different.

UCLA no longer has the trio of hitting threats at the net in then-seniors Jordan Anderson, Claire Felix and Jennie Frager. Sealy filled one void by recruiting rising senior Sarah Sponcil, a distinguished pin hitter/setter from Loyola Marymount. Sponcil ranks in the top 10 in the Eagles’ all-time records for kills, kills per set and attacks.

But Sponcil cannot occupy all of the holes left behind, although her and rising senior Riley Buechler will provide a powerful 1-2 punch at the net. Buechler led the crew in kills last year.

With a cadre of young, talented players, it looked like the Bruins could return with the offensive power it possessed a year ago. But that may not be the case.

Rising sophomore Torrey Van Winden won’t be back at UCLA after transferring to Cal Poly to be reunited with her sister. The hard hitter ranked third in kills last year for the Bruins and looked to be a key cog in the club’s formation this year. Chandler won’t return either, as she decided to forego her final year of eligibility to pursue a career in San Francisco.

Last year’s graduating class also put a dent in the team’s defensive corps. Sealy will be without his best two blockers in Felix and Frager, along with then-senior libero Taylor Formico. Frager led the team with 138 total blocks, Felix finished second with 98 total blocks and Formico received the Pac-12 Conference Libero of the Year award in back-to-back seasons.

The UCLA coach could be heading back to his roots with a defensive strategy in mind. This year’s squad already boasts more defensive specialists and liberos than last year.

Muno’s role has changed once again, as she will be one of the four liberos vying for the starting spot, as well as a defensive specialist. Rising sophomore pin hitter Savvy Simo will also switch to a more defensive role. The two should be the top candidates to take over as libero.

Sealy could return to the 5-1 formation, but if he doesn’t, he has a pair of setters in rising sophomore Kylie Miller and incoming freshman Katie Jacobs. Miller played in nearly 100 sets last year, while contributing with some digs and plenty of sets – she ranked second behind Chandler.

The Bruins are projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12, according to the offseason polls. Washington and defending champion Stanford are projected to be the most formidable teams in the conference.

But UCLA has been a major competitor in the conference since Sealy arrived, except for a underwhelming year in 2013 when the Bruins went 15-15 overall. Even with a younger, less experienced squad than last season, they should still remain in contention for a Pac-12 title for much of the season.

UCLA start the season in Hawaii at the Rainbow Wahine Invitational on Friday. The Bruins will play San Diego, Marquette and Hawaii in the weekend tournament.