FAIRFAX, Virginia — So much of the talk about men’s volleyball in the 21st century is about how the game has become much more physical, especially from the service line. It’s fastball after fastball. High risk, high reward.

UCLA threw that notion — and Long Beach State — a changeup Thursday night in its NCAA National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship semifinal match against Long Beach State.

Mixing a variety of jump-float serves with their usual heat — coach John Speraw even threw in seldom-used freshman libero Coleman McDonough as a shift in serving gear — the Bruins kept Long Beach guessing all evening and rolled to a 25-16, 25-14, 25-19 victory.

It not only moves the Bruins to 30-2 but puts them one victory away from the program’s first national title since 2006.

Standing in the way is two-time defending national champion Hawai’i (29-2), which survived a near-reverse sweep by Penn State in Thursday’s second semifinal at George Mason University.

On the surface, the serve-receive percentages between UCLA and Long Beach weren’t radically different: UCLA .953, Long Beach .925. But numbers don’t always tell the story. Long Beach was out of system much of the match.

“Our serving was great,” Speraw said. “We had a lot of success with float serves today, so that really worked for us, and we made some adaptations there and kept that going, which was really successful for us.”

UCLA had five service aces and just six serving errors, quite a stat considering the Bruins average five errors per set. Long Beach State of the Big West, which ended its season 21-5, had two aces and eight errors.

Equally as impressive was the way UCLA came out in the opening set. The Bruins hadn’t played a match since April 22, when they swept Stanford to win the MPSF championship.

Speraw talked in the days before the semifinals about trying to find the right balance of practice, rest, lifting, etc., so as to keep his team sharp. He must have cracked the code.

Once the Bruins seized the first-set lead at 3-2, they never trailed or faced a tie again.

And David was Goliath.

The 6-foot-7 sophomore opposite buried seven kills in the first set. And not to be outdone was junior outside Ethan Champlin, who registered six kills in the opening set. Still plenty of heat, even if there was less of it from the service line.

Senior outside Alex Knight added three kills and an ace, and the Bruins were on their way.

“I can’t emphasize enough how challenging it is to have a bye,” Speraw said. “And for us to have a bye and come in and play that first set the way we played that first set was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a team in a final four.

“I’m really, really proud we came in with that competitive mindset, and we were just ready to go.

“I thought that we did a great job of training. It was really hard. Just long. I think guys, at times, were getting a little edgy, and they’re ready to get going and I think they felt some level of fatigue because we kept pushing a little bit … At the end of the day, we were just super specific with aspects of the game that we continued to improve on.”

Long Beach, staggered by the haymaker it absorbed in the opening set, tried to push back in the second, but UCLA ballooned a 13-5 lead. Coach Alan Knipe tried a few tweaks to his lineup to find a spark.

“As a coaching staff, we’ll sit down and look at it, and I’m sure we’ll have 500 things we could have done different,” Knipe said. “When you have a minute at a timeout and three minutes between sets, you make the best calculated moves you can based on the history of the guys based off of how they’ve been training, based a little bit off of health.

“But more importantly, the history of the body of work, and you try to put them in the best pieces. We tried to do that tonight. Sometimes it works. Sometimes change is just change.”

He brought Nathan Harlan into the lineup in the middle of the second set, and the move initially worked. Harlan had back-to-back kills to drag Long Beach within 14-9.

UCLA, however, scored six of the next seven points to take a commanding lead. One of those was on an ace by McDonough, who had appeared in only 31 sets this season. But the freshman from Pittsburgh, using a jump-float serve, matched his season ace total to put the Bruins up 19-10.

“I’ve been doing some things at that position and trying to get some more points at the service line,” Speraw said. “We did really well there. One of the better matches we’ve had in a while in that spot. (Redshirt sophomore middle blocker) Guy (Genis) did a good job with his float.

“Coleman coming in not only gives you a really good float, he also gives you a really good defensive opportunity.”

The night was going so well for UCLA, freshman setter Andrew Rowan even planted a kill with a full wind-up to give his team a 14-10 lead in the third set. That was the third of three straight points he scored on kills – the other two were on dump shots, his first such attempts at those for the evening – to break open the only close set of the three.

“I’ve been telling him not to turn to swing and hit a ball all year long,” Speraw said, perhaps only half jokingly. “And when he turned, it was all or none for Andrew right then. It was either going to be like the greatest play ever or the worst one of his career.”

Asked about why he chose to swing away at that moment, Rowan, who had 40 assists, paused for a second then said, “I couldn’t tell you. It just kind of happened. I had the two dumps before it, and I just thought, ‘Why not keep it going?’ ”

Most of the night, Rowan stuck to his script, and that was heavy doses of David and Champlin. After being “held” to three kills in the second set, David put down seven more in the final set and finished the night with 17 on .625 hitting. Champlin finished with 14 kills on .619 hitting.

And between the two, they had only one service error, contributing to keeping Long Beach working for every point.

Rowan said David told him before the match that he was ready to carry a big load.

“From the beginning, Ido was telling me, you know, I’m here for this. Give me the ball. I’m ready,” Rowan said. “I think we got on them, and that could have got them demoralized, but I think we did great things at the beginning of the game.”

Knipe turned to another reserve, sophomore middle blocker DiAeris McRaven, for a spark in the third set. McRaven had appeared in only four matches and had one kill all season, but he came up with a kill on his only swing early in the third set.

It was a nice highlight for the young man but not nearly enough to help Long Beach recover.

Said Knipe: “It took us a long time to get going in any aspect of the game. I think if we had played like we had in the third set maybe from the opening set, I think it would have been a little bit different of a match.”

Sophomore outside hitter Sotiris Siapanis finished with 10 kills to lead Long Beach and senior outside Spencer Olivier, who was a member of Long Beach’s most recent championship team in 2019, added seven. Aidan Knipe had 26 assists.

For UCLA, Knight and redshirt junior middle blocker Merrick McHenry added six kills each, as the Bruins hit .458.

That leaves UCLA with one final hurdle between it and that long-awaited title.

“I don’t feel it,” Speraw said about the pressure of ending the title drought. “I’m trying to be exceptionally present and have a really, firm, confident belief that we are taking every day and making the most of it.”

NCAA Men’s Volleyball National Championship – Game 4 – UCLA vs Long Beach


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