Speraw: UCLA men “in a good place going into the stretch run”

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John Speraw-UCLA-Bruins
UCLA coach John Speraw doesn't want to rely on the NCAA selection process to get a bid/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

How balanced is the MPSF as it heads into its tournament?

Fifth-ranked UCLA, coming off a surprising sweep of No. 2 BYU to end the regular season, has the league’s only winning streak — and that’s two whole matches.

But BYU (20-6, 10-2 MPSF) holds the top seed and the bye that goes with it for winning the regular-season title, while No. 5 UCLA (22-6, 9-3) plays host to Stanford (6-19, 3-9) in Saturday’s quarterfinals.

So as that and the other two matches are going on, BYU will be sitting at home, waiting for the three winners to join the party in Provo for the semifinals April 19.

The MPSF gets one of the five automatic bids to the NCAA Division I-II men’s championship tournament. If there are no upsets, it’s hard to imagine the UCLA-BYU loser not getting one of the two at-large bids.

This year, the NCAA went from four automatic bids to five when the Big West added the sport.

So the MPSF, Big West (which includes top-ranked and unbeaten Long Beach State), MIVA, EIVA and Conference Carolinas all get one bid. Two others get at-larges — with the other likely going to the Big West — and there will be a play-in to the play-ins.

UCLA doesn’t want any part of that at-large process.

“It’s going to go to a committee, so you hope you win your tournament so you don’t have to deal with somebody else’s decision,” said Speraw, who is finishing his sixth season at UCLA after winning three NCAA titles at UC Irvine.

“Based on the criteria I think we’re in a pretty good place right now. But I’m trying to win the whole thing. I’m just thinking about what we need to do that and not play the criteria game.”

Criteria in UCLA’s favor: Obviously that win over BYU, early non-conference wins over UC Irvine (twice), Penn State, Ohio State, Hawai’i and CSUN.

The Bruins have a loss to Hawai’i, two to Long Beach and league defeats to BYU, Pepperdine and USC.

“There have been some upsets, and teams at the top have been upset, but Long Beach is one of the great collegiate teams I’ve ever seen,” said Speraw, also the USA men’s national-team coach in the middle of his second quadrennial. “They’re far and away the frontrunner and they deserve to be where they’re at.”

If the MPSF seeding holds, UCLA will play Pepperdine (which faces Stanford) in the semifinals when it could have had the Concordia-Grand Canyon winner.

Last year, UCLA was more banged up than can be imagined. The Bruins finished 17-10, 10-8 in the MPSF, and lost to UC Irvine (now in the Big West) in the MPSF quarterfinals.

“Last year was a rare anomaly that I’ve never experienced in 15 years, now 16 years of coaching,” said Speraw, the former UCLA player who earned his degree in microbiology and molecular genetics in 1995. “I think if you’re a football coach, you probably have to deal with that stuff all the time, but not in volleyball.

“It was disappointing because we had recruited that class and gone through the process of building it back and up getting to a final four. They got close their junior year and then had another shot and you can look at the teams and seen that it probably could have been a repeat final four. And we never even had a shot. I felt bad for the seniors.”

That class included Hagen Smith, Mitch Stahl (out for a month), Jackson Bantle and Michael Fisher. Smith and Michael Ma’a, a junior this year, ran a 6-2.

“This year it’s a re-tooled team in many ways with Micah running a 5-1,” Speraw said. “It’s the first time he’s done that in his career.”

Christian Hessenauer-UCLA-Bruins
Christian Hessenauer takes a swing against BYU earlier this season/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

And that’s really benefitted the Bruins’ top offensive player, 6-foot-6 senior opposite Christian Hessenauer. He leads the team in kills with 321 — Daenan Gyimah is next with 224 — and is averaging 3.53 kills per set while hitting .329, has 23 aces and is second on the team with 84 blocks, eight solo. For that matter, when Hessenauer was out for a while with an injury, it was about the only time the Bruins have not been healthy.

“Here he is, a senior, and hasn’t played tons of volleyball the last couple of years,” Speraw said. “With Micah embracing the craft of setting all the time and Hessenauer getting on the court his senior year, those are two key elements to our ability to be successful this year.”

Indeed. Ma’a, just 6-3, has 52 blocks, averages 1.67 digs per set, and while he doesn’t get a lot of kills, is hitting .408.

Speraw has the flexibility to change lineups, trading offense and size for ball control.

Gyimah, a 6-8 sophomore middle, is averaging 2.24 kills and has 37 aces, 6-4 junior outside Dylan Missry is averaging 2.25 kills to go with 35 aces, and 6-7 senior outside Jake Arnitz (who also missed a long stretch to injury in 2017) is averaging 2.18 kills.

“It’s interesting because we’re in a good place going into the stretch run, but there’s so, so much for this team to improve on,” Speraw said. “For me, I just wonder what can we get better at today, what kind of percentage difference can we make in that area, and is that going to be enough? I think that’s the ultimate question for all of us.”

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