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What a ride the past year has been for first-year UCLA coach Alfee Reft

No matter how this season turns out, as UCLA heads into the home stretch and vies for an NCAA Tournament bid, what a whirlwind of a year it’s been for Alfee Reft.

And in the middle of it all there was this one five-week stretch where he alternated between his UCLA program and the USA women’s national team as it prepared for and then qualifiied for the Olympcs.

“It was the most challening thing that I’ve done professionally, but probably the most rewarding and fulfilling,” Reft said. “And I really mean this, when you get to work with people like Karch and Tama (Miyashiro) and Erin (Virtue) and Marv (Dunphy) and coming here to UCLA where we’re building something so great and have equally a great staff,” he paused and laughed, “I try not to take a lot of time to think about the rigor of what we’re doing but there’s so much purpose on the line it keeps you going.

“So I haven’t thought a lot about what that was, you’re just putting one foot in front of the other.”

Eleven months ago, Reft capped a three-season run as an assistant at San Diego with that program’s first trip to the NCAA national semifinals. 

Four days later, he got his first head-coaching job, taking over the storied UCLA program.

That was just the beginning.

In addition to UCLA, Reft is one of Karch Kiraly’s USA national-team assistants. He joined the USA program after the Americans won gold in Tokyo. And all that entailed this year was playing Volleyball Nations League (in Türkiye, Brazil, Korea and Arlington, Texas); the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship in Quebec City, Canada; and, finally, the FIVB Road to Paris Volleyball Qualifier in Lodz, Poland, at which the USA won and qualified for the 2024 Olympics.

But it wasn’t that simple for Reft, who during the NORCECA tournament missed UCLA matches, and then missed more during the qualifying tournament.

We visited with him last week in Pullman, Washington, before the Bruins played Washington State.

VNL ended in on July 16, at which point Reft got back to UCLA, six weeks before the start of the NCAA season.

UCLA practice began in early August and at the same the USA women were preparing for NORCECA. 

Reft began his college career at UC Santa Barbara and finished at Hawa’i, where he was a standout libero for coach Carl McGown. He played professionally for seven years, from Montegro to Portugal to France, and built up time as a player and coach in the USA gym on both the men’s and women’s sides. Reft was an assistant at Minnesota under Hugh McCutcheon and for Chris Tamas at Illinois before heading to San Diego and working for Jen Petrie.

“I was fortunate enough to be around some great leaders,” Reft said. “Even as I was playing I was always coaching. I was in it.”

So he was ready for his first college head-coaching job.

UCLA coaches Amir Lugo-Rodriguez, left, and Alfee Reft at Washington last week/Stephen Burn photo

The Bruins opened their season at LSU with back-to-back five-set outcomes, losing the first and winning the second. After a trip a few hours north to sweep Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, they headed home for two matches at Long Beach State, where they beat Indiana and the home team. Reft, rather, headed  to Quebec City for NORCECA, leaving UCLA to be coached by assistants Jen Malcom and Amir Lugo-Rodriguez.

The USA lost to the Dominican Republic in the NORCECA final.

“It was challenging. We lost that NORCECA tournament and put us back on the drawing board,” Reft said. “It was challenging being a week out from the Olympic qualifier.”

Reft flew to Honolulu as UCLA went to Hawai’i and beat Pepperdine, Liberty and Hawai’i.

“And after that I went straight to Poland,” he said. “It was a back and forth for about five weeks.”

The USA women dominated in Poland, clinching their spot in Paris on September 24. During that tournament, UCLA lost at Oklahoma in five, beat the Sooner in four, lost in five to USC and got swept at Oregon. 

The USA was outstanding in the qualifier, losing only to Poland, again with a team that was continually using different lineups.

“NORCECA showed us a lot of things we had to get better at really quickly, or at least who us how we wanted to move some pieces around, but we knew we had the pieces,” Reft said.

“We got to Poland and we felt good about our starting seven and we knew we had a supporting cast that could really help us.”

The USA lost Micha Hancock at the last minute to a concussion, so Lauren Carlini handled the setting duties throughout. Veteran Jordan Larson, star of the Tokyo Olympics who did not play VNL, was a welcome addition.

“I think everyone played their roles really well, whether they were starters or game changers, as Karch likes to call them. Everyone understood what their role was.”

Reft had his own, both with the national team and UCLA.

“When I took the job at UCLA I was really clear with my administration about my loyalties and commitment to the USA program,”Reft said. “And I was fortunate that my supervisors and administration were all in on that. There were supportive. And then when I hired my staff they had to be able to run the show and Jen and Amir have extensive experience.”

Malcom, who played at Syracuse and finished at Iowa State, coached at Virginia Tech, Tennessee and for the previous four years back at Iowa State. Lugo-Rodriguez, who starred at Long Beach State, played for the USA and was an assistant at Cal and the past two years at Northwestern.

Their UCLA team is 16-10 overall, 8-8 in the Pac-12. In the last NCAA RPI the Bruins were ranked No. 42, but in Thursday’s updated Figstats RPI, they were up to 38. But after that aforementioned loss at Oregon in late September, they were 8-4, 0-2. 

Now they’re coming off a three-match winning streak after beating last-place Arizona, winning in five at No. 12 Washington State and winning in four at Washington.

Senior Iman Ndiaye has stepped up in a big way and leads UCLA with 305 kills (3.08 kills/set). Three others are right behind, sophomore Grayce Olson and (239 kills), sophomore Cheridyn Leverette (238 kills) and senior middle Anna Dodson (214 kills, third in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage, .388), who leads with 121 blocks, 21 solo. Desiree Becker had 112 blocks, 15 solo, to go with 136 kills. The firepower is certainly there and junior libero Peyton Dueck is more than capable. The setter is senior Audrey Pak, who is averaging 7.14 assists, averages better than a dig a set and has 61 blocks.

UCLA closes the regular season with home matches against No. 2 Stanford and Cal before going to Oregon State and USC.

“I think our players have really bought in. Everyone talks about process, but we had a decent start at the beginning of the year, we hit a lull at the beginning of Pac, and that could have been a make-or-break time for us. We had some real tough losses, but I think the team truly believed,” Reft said.

“I’m not a big hope-as-a-strategy guy, but they truly believed that the work that they put in over a cumulative time was going to pay off. Before these last three weeks the team was just grinding in the gym,” Reft said. “I think they’re cashing in on a cumulative work over extended time. But at the end of the day we have to execute against some really good teams down the stretch. But we have the belief.”