Mention UCLA athletics, and many immediately think of the Bruins’ wildly successful men’s basketball team. That program owns 11 national championships.

But that total is only slightly more than half of the number won by the UCLA men’s volleyball program. The Bruins have set the (blue and) gold standard in the sport with 19 national championships.

Here’s the rub: The Bruins haven’t won an NCAA title since 2006.

That doesn’t seem to bother coach John Speraw, who played on two UCLA title teams (1993, 1995) and was an assistant on three more (1996, 1998, 2000).

But in his 10 seasons leading the Bruins, a national title has eluded him. Despite that, Speraw doesn’t consider the topic verboten. In fact, it’s something he and his players talk about openly.

“We’re proud to be part of the heritage here,” he said. “We’d like to contribute to that. We’d like to bring back a championship to Westwood. It’s a goal of ours, and it’s something we discuss.

“It is not a weight. It’s something we want to do, and we’d be proud to be the team that brought it back.”

The NCAA volleyball committee seems to think this could be the year the Bruins return to the top. UCLA (29-2) earned the No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday, the MPSF-champion Bruins play the Big West’s Long Beach State in the first semifinal, followed by Big West-champion Hawai’i vs. EIVA-champion Penn State.

UCLA beat Long Beach in both of their February meetings. The Bruins’ only losses are to Penn State and Hawai’i.

“I think Hawaii is the favorite in that, despite their (No. 2) seeding, they’re the returning two-time champions with a senior setter (Jakob Thelle) who has been there before and real good leadership and athleticism.”

Reverse psychology? Maybe, because it’s not like the cupboard is bare in Westwood. Finding a weakness on UCLA’s roster is pretty much nitpicking.

It’s almost like the Bruins are playing one of the best teams in the country during intrasquad scrimmages.

UCLA’s Merrick McHenry hits against Pepperdine last month/Andy J. Gordon photo

“The practice gym every day is so high level,” said junior middle Merrick McHenry. “The reps that the ‘A’ side is able to get day in and day out, and the ‘A’ side getting beat multiple days. The ‘B’ side is just pushing us every day.

“It’s also just great to see when the people on the ‘A’ side might not be having their best nights and we need someone to put a ball away or serve an aggressive serve, we have a lot of guys on the bench who can come in and do that … There’s a lot of people who might be in the spotlight or get the attention in interviews, but we truly do need everyone on our roster.”

McHenry should know about the spotlight. He spends enough time there.

A freakish athlete with a multi-sport background — he also excelled in basketball and track and field in high school — the 6-foot-7 McHenry has evolved into one of the most explosive middles in the nation.

Pretty impressive for a guy who wound up there practically by accident.

During his redshirt freshman year, McHenry was practicing as an opposite. Fate then intervened. As former UCLA assistant John Hawks recalled it, the team was thread-bare at the position because of injuries, so the coaches asked McHenry to fill in during a practice.

What was supposed to be a one-off turned into a career-changing move.

“The next day,” McHenry recalled, “Speraw came up to me and said, ‘You might be mad at me, but, do you think you’d be interested in staying in the middle?’ There was just something I liked about playing in the middle, and I could see the potential in it. So I was OK with it.

“Ultimately, it was like, hey, if it can get me on the floor and I can start to help my team, why not?”

Merrick McHenry goes high over USC/Andy J. Gordon photo

That fits with McHenry’s willingness to think outside the box. He said one of the reasons he was drawn to volleyball was, in his home state of Texas, boys volleyball doesn’t get much attention. So, inspired by his mother, Jennifer, who played volleyball at Texas Tech, he took the road less traveled.

Last season, he earned a slew of accolades, including being a finalist for the Ryan Millar award as the nation’s top middle blocker. This season, McHenry hit .538, averaged personal-bests of 2.30 kills and 1.08 blocks per set and posted 28 service aces, also a personal best.

“His drive to be great,” said Hawks, who just completed his first season as coach at Loyola Chicago, about what makes McHenry tick. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He has just an incredible work ethic. His arm was a bit of an issue at first, but now as he has developed, he has an incredible point-scoring serve, and what he has done with his body to change it to adapt to that position is just incredible.”

Added Speraw: “He’s still a little behind in terms of some of the ways he plays the position, and I think with another couple of years, he’s going to be a national team guy, he’s going to be an impact international player.”

But McHenry is just one of many standouts for the Bruins. Senior outside hitter Alex Knight, sophomore opposite Ido David and junior outside Ethan Champlin also were first-team All-MPSF selections.

Penn State coach Mark Pavlik called Champlin the player who “makes that Bruin machine really hum.” Champlin contributes 2.73 kills (.333) and 1.31 digs per set and has served 36 aces.

The hulking, 6-7 David, a native of Israel, has a heavy arm and provides power from the right side. He hit .368 while averaging 3.48 kills per set. Knight, a 6-6 senior (2.45), also is a threat at the pin as well as on the block.

Controlling it all is a freshman setter who was thrown into the mix when the reigning MPSF player of the year, Miles Partain, quit the team. Andrew Rowan has run the UCLA offense like a seasoned veteran. The MPSF freshman of the year averages 9.85 assists per set and has served a team-high 49 aces.

Andrew Rowan/Andy J. Gordon photo

Oh, and he can defend, too. The 6-6 product of Trabuco Canyon, California, earned an MPSF defensive player of the week award after accumulating seven total blocks, including five solos, in those two wins over Long Beach.

“The remarkable thing at such a young age and the maturity to handle himself in competitive moments with poise and confidence, it has been really fun for us to see,” Speraw said. “I think he has become a leader on this team who has had significant influence on how we play emotionally.”

Added McHenry: “Rowan has been someone who has been the glue to our team and has been so crucial in critical moments, whether it’s through service pressure or just giving the ball to the right guy in the right moment.

“Rowan doesn’t like to lose. He’s just a competitor, and every single point he’s going to give his all. He’s also someone who we know what we’re going to get from him day in and day out … and that’s something we need is that consistency with someone who is going to be touching the ball every single point.”

Add a solid, experienced libero, Troy Gooch, a redshirt senior who averages 1.87 digs per set; and depth hitters such as Guy Genis (also from Israel), J.R. Norris IV and another fab freshman, Zach Rama (2.14 kills per set), and UCLA seems to have all the pieces.

If all those pieces come together at the right time, title No. 20 could be coming to Westwood.

Here’s a potential harbinger: This season marked UCLA’s first MPSF title since … 2006.

UCLA’s Ido David hits against USC’s Kevin Kobrine and Lucas Frassrand/Andy J. Gordon photo


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