The UCLA men’s volleyball team’s biggest adjustment during the season had nothing to do with Xs and Os or its opponents.
“We decided to get back to the basics of understanding our team culture and who we really wanted to be as a team and how we wanted to be known,” Bruins coach John Speraw said.
With one of the game’s greatest coaching minds at the helm, the Bruins went on a postseason run that included avenging an earlier loss in the MPSF championship match to BYU and ended with a tough five-set loss to Long Beach State in the NCAA final on their home floor at Pauley Pavilion.
For his work with UCLA this season, Speraw is the 2018 VolleyballMag.com/TallSlimTees men’s college coach of the year. He joins Long Beach State’s TJ DeFalco and Josh Tuaniga (co-players of the year) and BYU’s Gabi Garcia-Fernandez (freshman of the year) as our top men’s collegiate honorees.
“Speraw’s knowledge of the game is pretty unbelievable,” said UCLA junior outside hitter Dylan Missry. “He has a way of creating a system that is super-consistent and that led us to play at a really high level at the end of the year.”
UCLA junior setter Micah Ma’a said Speraw’s gifts span far beyond the volleyball court.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he said. “When I think about him I think about his intelligence in volleyball and in life. He’s one of the smartest guys I ever talked to. I’ve had a lot of good conversations with him. I think about the sacrifice he makes with two young girls at home, driving up from Orange County every day. He’s here late at night every night. He’s made a big sacrifice with himself and his family to be here with us. There’s something really special about him.”
Speraw, who won three NCAA titles as the coach at UC Irvine before returning to his alma mater, is also the USA national-team coach.
Missry said the fact that Speraw has been on the national-championship stage many times (he’s the only individual in men’s collegiate volleyball to win a NCAA title as a head coach, assistant coach and player and has been part of eight NCAA title teams in those roles), was a huge factor for the Bruins as they made their playoff run this season.
“Guaranteed,” he said. “None of us had played in a national-championship match before. We relied on Speraw because he’s been in quite a few of them. It was comforting to know that the stuff he says is so valuable. He’s been there before. He’s been in that position.”
Ma’a said one can’t help to be excited when Speraw is in the gym.
“Think about his experience and how much he has gone through,” he said. “In person or on the computer he has watched and learned so much throughout the year. He has this passion. He’s excited to come in the gym every day and work on something new. Nobody is more excited to be there every day than he is.”
UCLA made its first NCAA title match since 2006.
“I think I played a role in wanting to put some things in place that would help the guys understand how to communicate with each other better,” Speraw said. “I empowered some of our team leaders to take a much more vocal role and when that happened I thought this team really accelerated. We doubled down on that the last third of the season. We had a bunch of guys with high volleyball IQs and high EQs, meaning emotionally intelligent. Emotionally intelligent guys can motivate people.”
Speraw saw his squad put all the pieces together at exactly the right time earlier this month.
“They had the best experience they had not because they won, but because they loved each other,” said Speraw. “You could see that in the way they played and it showed in their performance at the end. I’m sorry they didn’t score a couple more points in the fourth set against Long Beach. That’s how much they were deserving of a championship. They improved more during the season than any championship team I coached. This was not a team that was as put-together as other teams in the final four. They had a wonderful journey and a great playoff run.
“It wasn’t pretty at any point, but our guys never got discouraged. They kept their focus and got better and they saw where that took them. It took them pretty far.”
Long Beach State duo share top player honor: Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe said this about trying choose between TJ DeFalco and Josh Tuaniga as the nation’s top player.
“It is really hard to split hairs,” he said. “They both were amazing this year.”
That they were.
DeFalco and Tuaniga were two key factors in the 49ers finishing the season NCAA champions.
Outside hitter DeFalco, a former VolleyballMag.com boys’ high-school player of the year, hit .377, while registering 366 kills (3.62 per set). He was especially key in the NCAA tournament where he had 16 kills and hit .361 in the semifinals against Ohio State and followed that up with 18 kills and 12 digs, while hitting .419 in the final against UCLA that helped the 49ers win their second NCAA crown in program history. The other was the 1991 team that included Knipe.
Tuaniga was the Big West Conference tournament MVP and the MVP of the NCAA tournament. He directed the 49ers to a .375 hitting percentage as five players had more than 100 kills each, including team-leaders DeFalco (366 kills) and 6-7 junior Kyle Ensing (355 kills). DeFalco and Ensing joined Tuaniga on the NCAA all-tournament team.
Garcia-Fernandez named top freshman: VolleyballMag.com chronicled current BYU freshman Gabi Garcia-Fernandez’s high-school and prep career last year.
A year later, Garcia-Fernandez is back in the spotlight as the nation’s top freshman after making an immediate impact for the BYU men’s team that qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Garcia-Fernandez was here, there and everywhere on the court for the Cougars. He played in a team-high 111 sets and finished with 387 kills on a team-high 807 swings (3.47 kills per set). He also topped the BYU charts in service aces (51), digs (150) and total blocks (90).