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UCLA Olympic Sports Postseason Roundtable, Part 2

Bruins Nations reviews the 2016 campaigns of UCLA Women's Volleyball and UCLA Men's Water Polo and assesses the prospects for both programs in 2017.

Men’s Water Polo

1. The Bruins started the season with 24 straight wins before finishing with a 1-3 record in their final four games. In your opinion, were the Bruins overrated prior to their last four games? If not, what led to UCLA's end of season collapse?

orlandobruin: I don’t think that they were overrated. The Bruins ran into a team that played better than them, Southern Cal, for two of those losses and lost in the NCAA semi-finals to UC Berkeley in overtime. Two of those three losses were on the road by one goal. The Bruins had previously beaten UC Berkeley, the eventual National Champion, three times on the season (twice at Berkeley). UCLA, Southern Cal, and UC Berkeley were clearly the three best teams in the country and each could beat the others on any given day. A few more good bounces and UCLA could have played for and won their third straight natty.

Bruinette88: I agree that the Bruins weren’t overrated. Unfortunately, UCLA’s level of play seemed to slip slightly in the final weeks of the season, and the Bruins weren’t so much better than UC Berkeley and Southern Cal that they could win in spite of being short of their best. I can’t explain UCLA’s end of season dip in form, but the offense seemed slightly sluggish and the defense wasn’t as tight. Of course, as orlando points out, a few good bounces would have been enough to put the Bruins back into the national championship game.

Joe Piechowski: They weren’t overrated. But, they did have a few close calls during the course of the season where they almost lost. In each of those cases, they still pulled out the win. That’s what elite teams do. The problem at the end of the season is that they were playing against the other two elite teams in college water polo and their luck ran out.

2. What was the primary difference between this year's team and the team that won the national championship last year?

orlandobruin: UCLA lost its #4 through #6 scorers from 2015, including two seniors, #4 scorer Anthony Daboub and #6 scorer Daniel McClintick. The #5 scorer, Spencer Farrar, transferred to UC Berkeley to join their swimming team, but did not play water polo. That translated to less goals for the Bruins this year. In 2015, UCLA scored 403 goals in 30 games. This season, the Bruins scored 348 goals in 28 games, a 55 goal difference with two less games played. A couple more goals could have made the difference between winning and losing in the Bruins’ three defeats.

Bruinette88: Anthony Daboub. He was an outstanding defender, a leader, and a clutch scorer. The Bruins sorely missed his contributions this season, especially in the high pressure atmosphere of the postseason.

Joe Piechowski: If I recall correctly (and I’m not looking this up as I write it even though I probably should), McClintick was the tournament MVP last season. When you lose your most valuable player, you have to fill that role somewhere and, while they may have for most of the year, they just didn’t get the same MVP perfomance(s) out of this year’s team. Hopefully, it will make next year’s team hungrier.

3. Who was UCLA's outstanding player this season? Which of the Bruins' underclassmen caught your eye?

orlandobruin: It is really a toss up between three seniors who will be sorely missed next year: goalkeeper, Garrett Danner; leading scorer, Patrick Fellner; and second leading scorer, Ryder Roberts. Roberts doesn’t make the first cut because, although he scored 33 goals, that was down from 50 the season before. So it is between Danner and Fellner. I am going with co-MVPs. Freshman attacker Jake Simpson had 15 goals as did sophomore defender Warren Snyder, although bother players did most of their damage against lesser competition.

Bruinette88: I have to go with goalkeeper Garrett Danner as this season’s outstanding player. Although I don’t think he played as well in 2016 as he did last year, he kept the Bruins in a lot of games when they were struggling to score. And to be honest, the defense in front of him wasn’t as good as it had been in the two previous seasons.

Backup goalkeeper Aleksander Ruzic was excellent in his 11 starts. I don’t know if he will be the starter next season, though--that will depend on the status of Alex Wolf.

Joe Piechowski: Fellner was definitely the most outstanding. He was the guy who always seemed to step up. Aleksander Ruzic is the “next man up” in goal with Danner graduating. He has the potential to become UCLA’s next great goalkeeper.

4. What are the Bruins' prospects for 2017? Will they contend for another title?

orlandobruin: The Bruins’ chances for a title in 2017 are slim. UCLA’s best scores are graduating, as is its senior goalkeeper, Garrett Danner. In the 6 games against Southern Cal and UC Berkeley (i.e., top competition), UCLA scored 50 goals, but only 21 of those goals were scored by players who will be back in 2017. Guys like Alex Roelse and Max Irving are going to need to step up to replace Fellner, Roberts, Joey Fuentes, Chancellor Ramirez, and others. Also, UCLA cannot replace the size of their graduating centers, 6’7” Gordon Marshall and 6’8” Alex Zwaneveld. Heach Coach Adam Wright played back up keeper Aleksander Ruzic a lot this season, so I think Ruzic, a junior, will be ready to start in the big games

Bruinette88: 2017 will almost certainly be a rebuilding year for the Bruins. The 2016 team was senior-heavy, which means that there will be a lot of relatively inexperienced players who will be asked to play significant roles next year. That said, UCLA is likely to be ranked in the top-5 nationally, but the Bruins’ prospects for a conference or national championship aren’t good.

Joe Piechowski: One thing I realized following the team much more closely this year is that there really is no competitive balance in water polo nationally. The top four teams will continue to be in the MPSF: Southern Cal, UC Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA. It’s really just a matter of how those four teams play down the stretch. It may seem like a rebuilding year and it could be. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Adam Wright get the team back to the National Championship game.

5. What grade would you assign to Coach Wright for the 2016 season?

orlandobruin: The 24 straight wins this season extended UCLA’s winning streak to 57, a streak that lasted almost two years. If Wright gets an A+ for an undefeated season and an NCAA title in 2015, and an A for a 29-3 record and a NCAA title in 2014, a lesser grade is warranted here for a 25-3 record and no natty. Expectations at UCLA are high. I give Wright a B-.

Bruinette88: I’m going to modify orlando’s statement slightly to say “expectations at UCLA should always be high.” Although Coach Wright came close to winning a third straight national championship, the team fell short of its goal. There were no significant injuries that would explain the Bruins’ failures in the postseason, so fairly or not, Coach Wright is held fully responsible for the results, just as he was the two previous seasons when UCLA won national titles. Therefore, I’m giving Coach Wright a B+ this season. It was nearly a special season, marred only by three very tough, close losses in the postseason.

Joe Piechowski: Prior to the first Southern Cal game, it was an A+. The team set the NCAA record for consecutive wins. They were unstoppable. Then, Southern Cal stopped them twice and Cal beat them in OT. Those three games deserve, at best, a C if not a D or an F. So, it definitely pulls down the season long grade. I’m going to go with a B+, with the plus being for setting the new NCAA record.

Women’s Volleyball

1. The Bruins finished in a tie (with Stanford) for second place in the Pac-12 this season and then advanced to the NCAA Regional Finals before losing to #2 Minnesota. Did UCLA perform to your expectations this season?

orlandobruin: After a Sweet Sixteen appearance year last year, this team met my expectations. I think that an Elite Eight appearance, their first since 2011, when they won it all, was right about where I thought the Bruins would be. A Final Four appearance would have exceeded my expectations.

Bruinette88: Yes, but just barely. I expected UCLA to contend for the Pac-12 title but to fall short by a game or two. I also felt that the Bruins had the talent to advance to an NCAA regional final, and possibly a national semifinal, but that the team would have to overachieve to win a national championship. That’s essentially the way the season played out, so while I have to credit the Bruins for meeting expectations, there’s also some disappointment that the team wasn’t able to step up and exceed expectations. In other words, 2016 represents a step forward for the program, but it’s a tiny step.

Joe Piechowski: This team showed flashes of brilliance at times over the course of the season, but just when you thought they were ready to break through, they’d take a step back. This happened often enough that I didn’t expect a national championship this year. For that matter, thinking back, there was a point early in the conference season where they were sitting in 8th place in the conference. Then they ran off a long winning streak and found themselves in contention for the conference title. In both the Washington and Minnesota matches, I felt like they were seriously overmatched. Ultimately, though, I think this team met my expectations.

2. In retrospect, what do you think of Coach Sealy's decision to use a two-setter system?

orlandobruin: I think that it took the Bruins time to adjust to having two setters, which might have cost them a some victories earlier in the season (USD, Wazzou) and might have cost them seeding in the NCAA tournament. Kylie Miller and Ryann Chandler are both good players but, IMO, having two setters has the same disadvantages is platooning starting QBs in football and starting point guards in hoops: the lack of a true leader on the court.

Bruinette88: I have to give credit to Coach Sealy for his brave decision to experiment with a two-setter offense. I think it was the right decision, though I wish he had been a bit more consistent in the way he used his players within the system. I realize that Coach Sealy is inclined to tinker, but there’s something to be said for keeping things simple, allowing players to become truly comfortable in their roles, and aiming for consistency in execution.

Joe Piechowski: It’s funny that orlando mentions that he thinks the two-setter offense left them without a true leader on the court because I definitely think that the team had a true leader on the court, but it wasn’t either setter. It was team captain and libero Taylor Formico. While consistency is certainly important, we’ve learned from football that it’s also important to make adjustments to what other teams are throwing at you. Admittedly, I’m just not sure that a one-setter offense would have made much difference for this team.

3. Who was the Bruins' MVP this season, and which of the departing seniors will be most difficult to replace?

orlandobruin: Jordan Anderson is my answer to both questions, although Claire Felix, at 6’6”, is a close second in response to “most difficult to replace.”

Bruinette88: Taylor Formico is the MVP. The Bruins defense relied heavily on Formico’s steadiness and instincts, and Formico delivered game after game at an elite level. Formico was a deserved winner of the Pac-12’s Libero of the Year award, and the only Bruin to win one of the conference’s major awards. Even if you believe that the impact of a libero (essentially a defensive specialist) tends to be overrated, Formico’s standout performances throughout the season contributed tremendously to the Bruins’ success in 2016.

The most difficult departing senior to replace will be either Felix or Frager--not so much because of their talent, but because of their experience and size.

Joe Piechowski: Wow. Where do I start? This team is losing a lot of talent after this season. Taylor Formico is definitely the MVP and I think she has intangible qualities that will be difficult to replace. You’ve got to love the way she is willing to sacrifice her body to keep balls in play. In that respect, she reminds me a little of Derek Jeter. There’s no doubt, though, that Jordan Anderson and Claire Felix will also be tough to replace.

4. What's your assessment of the trajectory of our women's volleyball program?

orlandobruin: UCLA is trending up. Reily Buechler is going to be a beast next year. There is a lot of young talent on the squad. Following the trend, UCLA should make it to the Final Four next year, right?

Bruinette88: I suspect that 2017 will be a down year. UCLA is losing four starters, including both middle blockers. There isn’t a lot of experience on the bench to replace those seniors, which is one of the unfortunate consequences of Coach Sealy’s past reliance on transfers. Of course having a down year isn’t a sign that the program is trending down, but after three straight seasons in which progress has been modest, a down year feels like a bigger setback. If the Bruins don’t contend for a conference title next season, then over the course of Coach Sealy’s tenure, the trajectory of the program is flat.

Joe Piechowski: Well, at this point, knowing how much talent the team is losing, I think it’s easy to expect next year to be a down year. At the same time, I think Torrey Van Winden had a great freshman season and I expect her to continue to get even better. And, of course, there’s Reily Buechler! If Coach Sealy is able to fill some of the other holes, it may not be a down year after all. But, I think it will probably prove to be too hard to replace all of this year’s seniors.

5. What grade would you assign to Coach Sealy for the 2016 season?

orlandobruin: Coach Sealy gets a B in my book.

Bruinette88: Coach Sealy earns a B+ from me this season based on (a) a relatively strong (by Sealy’s standards) recruiting class for 2016; (b) the development of players like Miller, Van Winden, and Muno; and © the upward trend in the profile of UCLA women’s volleyball. The challenge for Coach Sealy is to maintain this momentum in order to make UCLA a premier  volleyball program (like Stanford) that consistently contends for conference and national titles. I suspect that this momentum will stall next year, unfortunately, but Coach Sealy needs to make sure that the Bruins are back competing for conference titles year after year rather than once every four or five years.

Joe Piechowski: My grade is based on the team’s performance on the court. This was an exciting team to watch. They drew almost 4,000 fans to the post-Thanksgiving match against Southern Cal and, frankly, Pauley Pavilion looked more full for that match than for some UCLA Men’s Basketball games and that was despite the fact that the match was played at the same time as UCLA’s final football game of the season. The team tied Stanford for second in the conference and they beat the Cardinal twice. I’m not sure if the result of the Washington game would have been different if they played them at Pauley instead of in Seattle, but I’d like to think it would have been more of a match. And the same can be said for the Minnesota match. Those were two tough, but must-win matches on the road. Those two matches drop his overall grade to a B.