FAIRFAX, Virginia — Somewhere out there is a young lady who helped the UCLA men’s volleyball team win a national championship.
If not for her, J.R. Norris IV might not have been on the floor to play a key role in the Bruins’ victory Saturday in the National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship at George Mason’s EagleBank Arena.
Norris, a sixth-year middle blocker — who, until Saturday night saw mostly spot duty for the Bruins — was thrust into the spotlight against two-time defending national champion Hawai’i. Normally, coach John Speraw complements All-American junior Merrick McHenry with sophomore Guy Genis in the middle.
But in going over the matchups for the Bruins’ battle with Hawai’i, Speraw decided Norris’ attacking and serving could be vital if his team was to win.
Not necessarily a bold move, per se. Norris did average 1.42 kills and hit .582 in the 52 sets he played during the regular season. “Surprising” might be a more accurate description, given that Norris didn’t even play in UCLA’s the semifinal victory over Long Beach State.
The moment didn’t seem to faze Norris. He rewarded Speraw’s decision with eight kills on 11 swings — with no errors — for a .727 hitting percentage and five aces, four in the deciding fourth set. That completed the Bruins’ 28-26, 31-33, 25-21, 25-21 victory and gave the program its 20th national championship.
For Speraw, it was his fourth title overall as a coach but the first at his alma mater.
“I originally started thinking about (using Norris) when I started looking at the matchups and what we were going to need to do on a rotation-by-rotation basis and what I thought potentially were some moves we make,” Speraw said. “ … I was thinking about what the strengths and weaknesses were and how to use those for the good of the team, and tonight, it was the J.R. move.”
Not a bad gig for a guy who got into volleyball simply to impress a girl.
Norris, from Lancaster, California, tells two stories about getting involved with volleyball.
The “official” story is, in middle school, he and his friends decided they were going to try every sport, and volleyball was available. He said he showed up to the first practice, was one of only seven athletes there and automatically made the team.
The “unofficial” story, as he calls it, is of a girl in his English class who was a volleyball player. Norris was trying to flirt with and impress her, so he said he was a player, too. That’s how and why he wound up at that tryout.
“And now I’m here,” he said as he sported his new national-championship hat and T-shirt.
“Here,” is at the top of the men’s college volleyball mountain. It’s a place UCLA ruled for many years. But the Bruins spent the past 17 years looking up as others hoisted the trophy, including Speraw, one of their own, who took UC Irvine to the summit three times (2007, 2009, 2012).
Now, the Bruins are back. The most storied program in men’s volleyball history can call itself a champion for the 20th time and first since 2006.
“It was just tight the whole way,” Speraw said. “Never comfortable. It was almost a surprise to me when the last ball dropped.
“I just kept thinking, ‘We’re probably going to overtime’ in that fourth set. So the guys made some really big plays. Some of it, I don’t even remember already.”
It takes a lot of star power to win a title, and UCLA has no shortage of that. There’s Israeli sophomore opposite Ido David, who makes crowds gasp and opponents quiver with his booming kills. There’s McHenry, the lithe, long, springy former state hurdles champion who is a matchup nightmare in the middle. And there’s wunderkind setter Andrew Rowan — 60 assists Saturday — a fabulous freshman who might well take the place of Hawai’i’s Jakob Thelle as the nation’s best at his position.
But it takes a village to win a trophy. It takes players who aren’t always in the spotlight. Like Norris, who said what finally made volleyball emerge as his passion — rather than simply as a means of impressing a young lady — was the cerebral aspect of it.
“Volleyball was one of the first sports that challenged me really mentally,” said Norris, who also spent 10 years studying ballroom dancing, which should impress any lady. “The other sports, I was able to just get by on athleticism, but in volleyball it was almost like playing chess. It was one-on-one math with the person across the net from me but it’s also a team sport at the same time.”
Speraw made the right move with Norris. And if using Norris in tandem with McHenry (11 kills, two block assists) put Hawai’i in check — “The matchup in the middle, we really didn’t have much of an answer for it,” Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade said — he used a Knight to achieve checkmate.
Alex Knight might not have the raw power of David or the hang time of McHenry, but when the stat sheets are handed out at the end of the match, Knight’s contributions are obvious. And they are many.
The senior outside had a stat line for the title match that showed 15 kills (.353), two aces, three block assists and a perfect percentage on 26 serve receptions.
Coupled with his six kills, two aces and three block assists against Long Beach State in the semifinals, Knight’s numbers added up to his recognition as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Like Speraw, Knight has deep roots at UCLA. Perhaps even deeper. The senior from Culver City, California, has four relatives who graduated from UCLA: both parents, his older sister and a grandmother.
As he leaned over the postgame news conference table — half from exhaustion, half from disbelief — Knight clutched his mini-NCAA trophy, looked across at Norris and asked, “What just happened?”
Knight was able to put his emotions into words a bit later.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I can remember,” Knight said. “My whole family is a Bruin family, and I’ve always said I wanted to come to UCLA and win a championship and be a part of the culture of excellence that UCLA has.
“Not a lot was going through my mind (after the final point) other than raw emotion and happiness for the program and all of the people who have put in the work, not just for our team but the staff. And thinking about coming home for a celebration and what that’s going to be like.”
There’s also Troy Gooch, the redshirt senior libero who spent his first four seasons at Purdue-Fort Wayne. Gooch contributed 15 digs and 28 clean service receives to the effort Saturday and went from never playing in a national championship tournament to the euphoria of being a national champion.
Hawai’i knows that feeling. Saturday, however, was not their night. Despite battling gamely, the Rainbow Warriors weren’t able to stop the Bruins.
But they made sure UCLA had to work to wrest the title that had been theirs.
“They battled and played like champions, and there’s a lot of fight in them,” Wade said. “At the end, it wasn’t enough to win three sets or push it to a fifth, but I wasn’t surprised at all. These guys are true Warriors and battled at every opportunity.”
Hawai’i will be bidding farewell to a number of key players who helped them elevate the program to elite status. Not the least is Thelle, who was voted the AVCA national player of the year.
Thelle, who had 50 assists, an ace and three block assists Saturday, has been the linchpin for the Rainbow Warriors’ two-title run and will be, to say the least, difficult to replace.
Traces of tears were clearly visible in the Norwegian’s eyes as he spoke after the match. But he was confident there would be nothing but joy as he takes his leave of the islands that he said have become a second home.
“I think as a team, all we accomplished over the years just goes beyond sports,” he said. “The brotherhood that we have built over the years, the culture of brotherhood and excellence, that’s something you can never take away … It’s more important than the results we achieved.
“I truly believe we left the program in a better state than when we got to it. … I’m just really proud of everybody. It’s been a ride. I’m just so proud of everybody. I came to Hawai’i with a smile on my face, and I will leave Hawai’i with a smile on my face.”
Greek opposite hitter Dimitrios Mouchlias will be another significant loss. Mouchlias now will go pro, giving up his final year of eligibility at Hawai’i, but he went out swinging.
He led Hawai’i on Saturday with 18 kills — trying to offset the performance of his counterpart, David, who had a match-high 23 kills — and three block assists.
“I’m just proud,” Mouchlias said. “I’m proud of myself and proud of my teammates and coaches. That was my mindset before I entered this game. I didn’t know the result. We might win. We might lose. But all I knew is if I give 100% I would have no regrets, and that’s what I did. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the result we wanted, but we should still be proud. We are a great team.
“Endings are always difficult. When you have to say goodbye — not to the players because we will face each other sometime in life — but to all of these fans. It’s really sad. They do so many things for us, and we cannot appreciate it enough.”
The players will cross paths again — Thelle and Mouchlias, along with teammate Spyros Chakas, will compete in Europe with their national teams — just not in Hawai’i uniforms.
A new group will try to pick up the ball next season, which will include Chakas, who had 12 kills, seven digs and an ace Saturday; middle blocker Guilherme Voss (eight kills, three block assists); and outside hitter Chaz Galloway, who rebounded from a subpar performance in the semifinals to post 11 kills and three block assists.
“Just like the year after we won, the past achievements are great … but each season is a new one,” Voss said. “I’m sure we’re going to get back together next season and work our butts off with a new goal in mind, a new group, and we will keep driving.”
This group of Rainbow Warriors, though it walked away without a third trophy, did score one victory Saturday: By being half of what might be the most closely contested and high-level men’s volleyball final in recent memory, Hawai’i helped to make it a win for the sport.
An ESPN2 audience was treated to all the attributes that are making men’s and boys volleyball grow rapidly. For that matter, the NCAA beach volleyball championships, being shown on ESPN2, when way long because of weather delays and was moved to ESPN News when the men’s match started.
“Anytime you’ve got tight sets and the level is like it (was) and you have the physicality of the players that were on both teams, it’s engaging,” Speraw said. “Most of the time, we hear, when people see men’s volleyball played, it’s surprising, it’s engaging and they want to see it again.
“Hopefully, there was a lot of people who saw this for the first time and want to become a men’s volleyball fan.”
With that, Speraw scooped up his young daughters and headed out to enjoy a long-awaited celebration with his players and family. Oh, there might be a temptation to look ahead to next season. After all, the bulk of this group will be back and can try to win back-to-back titles of its own.
But that temptation will have to wait. There will be a big reception awaiting in Westwood to put the exclamation point on this season.
“I’m an alum here,” Speraw said. “So I felt I really wanted to do this for them and wanted to do it for all the guys who toiled and won and tried hard in the last number of years to get it over the top and were close … And I know it’s great for the institution. I can’t even imagine how happy everybody is at UCLA. Everybody is so into it at UCLA.”