When UCLA is hitting on all cylinders, which it was Sunday at Colorado, the Bruins are a handful.
Winning at Colorado was especially important Sunday because the Bruins (9-6 overall, 4-2 in the Pac-12) were coming off back-to-back tough league losses. Last Friday night, they lost in four to then No. 8 Washington, and then this past Friday got swept at No. 18 Utah.
And Colorado was winless in the conference and, at this point, playing with nothing to lose.
“This was a trap game,” UCLA coach Mike Sealy said Sunday afternoon in Boulder. “You’re playing a team that doesn’t have a Pac-12 win yet, they have two starters (out), so you have everything to lose here and not a whole lot to gain on paper, so it’s good to execute.”
No one was executing better than UCLA’s outside hitters, junior Mac May and senior Savvy Simo. In that match, a quick 25-15, 25-23, 25-18 sweep, May was a vicious attacker, leading with 18 kills.
“I just try to get it to the floor as fast as I can,” May said with a laugh.
She had one error in 33 swings and hit .515.
Simo had nine kills and covered more ground on the back row than most outsides dream of. For that matter, they’ve pretty much been a one-two punch all season.
May, the 6-foot-3 junior from Dubuque, Iowa, leads the team with 222 kills (4.62/set). She’s hitting .256, and leads with 18 aces, is third in digs with 138, and has 17 blocks, six solo.
“I’m really happy with where we are right now,” said May, a member of UCLA’s two-time national-championship beach team. “The two (Pac-12) losses that we had we came out of them knowing that we definitely could have won had we worked harder and played better.”
Simo, a star player on the UCLA beach team, is a high-leaping 5-10 product of Rancho Santa Fe, California, near San Diego, and has 155 kills (3.23/set), is hitting .278, has eight aces, is second in digs with 147 (3.06/set), and has 13 blocks, six solo.
She’s also finally getting to play on the front row after being a defensive specialist. Last season she had one kill and was second on the team in digs.
“She’s so steady on defense, just constantly popping balls up, and when she’s not banging balls she sees the court well and is chipping and chopping and doing all sorts of things, like hitting a roll shot right over the block,” May said. “And along with that great play, she leads the team really well. She’s our four-year senior and has really taken on that role and it’s great.”
Simo is the only player left from her five-freshman class of 2016.
Setter Kylie Miller is at Minnesota, Torrey Van Winden was an All-American the past two years at Cal Poly but hasn’t played since the end of last season because of concussions, Madeleine Gates is a graduate transfer starting for Stanford, and Jamie Robbins left volleyball and is a swimsuit model with 125,000 followers on her Instagram account.
“I’m the only senior who’s made it all four years, so I’ve really had to find a way to get this team going,” said Simo, whose real first name is Savannah. “I’m stepping into a leadership role after a really tough season. It’s less about the play and more about the team chemistry and the culture that we have. That’s super important on the beach side, so I’ve tried to cultivate that here.”
Simo recognizes that UCLA relies pretty heavily on its outsides. She likes getting set, but …
“We’re definitely working on spreading our offense a little more because that’s important,” Simo said. “I think teams will start to pick up that we’re very left-side pin dominant. That’s OK, but we need to connect more with the middles and the right sides so we’re spreading the offense.”
The next closest attacker is junior Jenny Mosser, who has 96 kills, and it falls off dramatically after that. Emily Ryan, a 6-4 sophomore middle, has 59 kills and leads the team with 43 blocks, nine solo.
UCLA runs a 6-2 with Devon Chang (229 assists, 11 aces, 79 digs), a sophomore from Newport Beach, California, who played sparingly last year, and senior transfer Cali Thompson (167 assists, 53 digs), who played her first three seasons at Portland. But Thompson missed nine matches after spraining her ankle in the team’s season-opening loss to Baylor.
“There’s a great culture that’s been here and I feel like we’re just improving on that,” Thompson said. “I love it here and I love the coaches, the team, and I think we’re staying together and working hard.”
Moving from Portland was quite a change.
“It’s a much bigger school, so you definitely have to get around a lot faster. I think it’s going pretty well. One thing that’s different is that it’s on a quarter system and not semesters. I have to be very disciplined and aggressive on getting ahead of things.”
Tenth-year coach Sealy made changes to his staff after last season when the Bruins finished 13-14, 8-12 in the Pac-12. He went down the hall and took Brad Keller (read our story about Keller here) away from the men’s staff and made him his associate head coach, and added Megan Pendergast, a former Texas A&M libero who last year was an assistant at Oklahoma.
“We’re training better. We’re more focused. Brad and Megan do a good job of being in the gym and getting accountability and there’s a more professional mindset that I’m appreciating,” Sealy said. “I think we’re training the team very well.”
UCLA lost its first two matches, to Baylor and Nebraska at Nebraska, and then beat Georgia, Texas State, and Long Beach State. In Hawai’i, the Bruins beat Utah Valley and West Virginia, but got swept by Hawai’i.
After getting swept at UC Santa Barbara, things looked especially bleak when UCLA went down 0-2 — including losing the first set 25-12 — at home against USC in the Pac-12 opener. But they stormed back to win in five and beat Arizona State and Washington State.
“The Pac-12 is crazy, so any time you get a split you’ve got to celebrate it,” Sealy said.
Currently, Cal, Stanford, and Utah are tied for first at 5-1. The Bruins are tied with Washington and Washington State and play at Oregon on Friday before going to Oregon State on Sunday.
“Going through the Pac-12 right now, we’re in a good place,” May said. “I think we’re working really hard and everything we’re doing is putting us in the right direction. I’m excited.
“The Pac-12 is crazy with all the upsets. If we play our game and stay steady, it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’ We’ve just got to keep striving for that.”