Longtime rivals Hawai’i, UCLA meet in epic clash for men’s national volleyball title
FAIRFAX, Virginia – John Speraw has every reason to be the happiest man in Fairfax.
First, the UCLA coach guided his team to a relatively easy sweep of Long Beach State in Thursday’s early semifinal at the NCAA’s National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship. That put the Bruins on the brink of the 20th national title in program history, Speraw’s fourth as a head coach and the first at his alma mater after he won three championships at UC Irvine.
Then he sat and watched a five-set slugfest between Hawai’i and Penn State in the other semifinal, in which the Rainbow Warriors narrowly averted a reverse sweep.
Perhaps the Bruins (30-2) will be a little fresher for Saturday’s championship match — set for 5 p.m. Eastern at George Mason’s EagleBank Arena and on ESPN2 — against two-time defending national champion Hawai’i (29-2).
While Speraw acknowledged his team might have had “a little bit of gas in the tank” to practice a bit harder than Hawai’i on Friday, he isn’t banking on having any significant edge.
“I know in years past (fatigue) was (a factor) because we played these back-to-back, on a Friday-Saturday,” he said. “Maybe the last time was ’95. That was the big issue because Hawai’i and Penn State went five, and we played Ball State and won in three.”
UCLA went on to sweep Penn State for the national title that year.
“I think there was some concern about fatigue back then, so they put the day off in between, which is the right choice,” Speraw continued. “With a day off in between, I think it mitigates it to some degree.”
There seemed to be little concern from the Hawai’i side on the topic.
After Thursday night’s win over Penn State, Rainbow Warriors junior outside hitter Chaz Galloway talked about how being in a five-set NCAA match with Ball State last season prepared them to grind out the win over the Nittany Lions. Likewise, said middle blockers Cole Hogland and Guilherme Voss, it taught the players how to recover physically and emotionally for the next match.
“We had a lot more experience in fifth-set matches last year, especially the Ball State one,” said Hogland, who had four kills and two block assists in Thursday’s win. “Just coming in the next day we get a lot of sleep … just knowing how we did it last year and being in the situation we are today, I think it really helped out that we went to five last year and last night.”
Added Voss, who had six kills and six total blocks against Penn State: “This group has been together four years now, basically. In the past we’ve had experiences similar to this … Just taking (Friday) to be able to rest has been a great help, just waking up late, being able to get off your feet a little bit is going to be very helpful.”
So what will be the difference?
When the teams met in March as part of Hawai’i’s Outrigger Invitational, the Rainbow Warriors prevailed 29-27, 21-25, 25-22, 28-26. So with four sets decided by a total of 11 points, the margin is razor-thin when it comes to separating the two.
Service pressure might figure heavily into the outcome. During the season, UCLA ranked third in the nation in aces per set (1.96) behind Penn State and Princeton. UCLA had success with its serve against Long Beach on Thursday, using a mix of aggressive serves and jump-floats to keep Long Beach scrambling all night.
Hawai’i, meanwhile, had only three aces against Penn State. Uncharacteristic, considering they averaged 1.66 per set during the regular season. More critically, the Rainbow Warriors struggled on the other end of the serve against Penn State, getting aced 12 times and passing at an .844 clip.
But in the fifth set, Hawai’i found its footing and, as Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said, won the serve-pass game.
For the season, Hawai’i averaged one serve receive error per set while forcing opponents into 1.7 per set. UCLA also averaged only one serve receive error per set and tied up opponents to the tune of just under two (1.96) errors per set.
While both teams face challenges in serve-pass, each also has to figure out a way to slow down the other’s opposite hitter.
For UCLA, that means finding an answer for Hawai’i’s Dimitrios Mouchlias, who, despite not having a kill in the deciding set, had 25 kills Thursday against Penn State. Heading into the tournament, UCLA middle blocker Merrick McHenry called Mouchlias, who will leave school after this season to turn pro, a “baller.”
“In the big moments, when everyone in the gym knows it’s going to him, he still puts it away,” McHenry said.
On the other side, Hawai’i needs to slow down UCLA sophomore Ido David. The native of Kiryat Ata, Israel, had seven kills in the first and third sets against Long Beach State and finished with 17 for the match. For the season, he is hitting at a .378 clip.
In their regular-season meeting, Mouchlias had 22 kills on .390 hitting, and David had 21 kills on .325 hitting.
There also is the battle of setters, which could be a changing of the guard of sorts.
Hawai’i’s Jakob Thelle is recognized as not only the best setter but the best player in the country period. That was confirmed earlier this week when the AVCA named the Norwegian its national player of the year.
Then there is UCLA freshman Andrew Rowan. He has handled himself like a fifth-year senior, always seeming to make the right choice about whom to set and when. Speraw has spoken repeatedly about Rowan playing beyond his years.
“He has done an amazing job,” Speraw said after Thursday’s win in which Rowan had 40 assists, three kills — all in a row in the third set — and five digs.
“A freshman who is — and we’ve said it all along but now we can say it when he’s in the room — he just has a level of maturity that most young men his age don’t bring to the game. It’s really fun to be a part of and witness.”
With so many forces having the potential to cancel each other out, perhaps there is an X-factor that will decide the outcome, a player who might not normally shine in a big moment but has his day on the biggest stage.
Perhaps someone such as UCLA’s J.R. Norris IV, who, though he appeared in only half of the team’s sets during the regular season, averaged 1.42 kills per and hit .582. In the MPSF title match against Stanford, a Bruins sweep, he had five kills on six swings and a block assist.
“The main thing I have been focusing on this year is, while I might not get the playing time that I may want, is really just staying locked into the game and making sure to be in constant communication with (middle blocker) Guy (Genis) and Merrick about what I see on the sideline and what they see in match,” Norris said. “It’s all of us working in tandem together to get the best possible outcome.”
While predicting a winner is difficult, volleyball people might agree that, regardless of the outcome, the real winner is their sport.
They got the best two teams in the nation vying for the title, and, perhaps just as importantly, two teams with a long history together.
One of them will make more Saturday night.
“I’ve heard a little bit about how maybe ‘volleyball’ wanted to see this. I don’t know that the Long Beach State or Penn State fans felt the same way,” Speraw said. “I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that. But I am excited to have this opportunity.
“I know the crowd is going to be predominantly Hawai’i out there. They traveled very well … It will be a fun match. I think it will be great for both programs.”
Added Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade: “When we split from the MPSF in 2018, they (UCLA) weren’t on the schedule every year. Scheduling becomes complicated and there are multi-year agreements. It was good to have them back out for the Outrigger this year and really looking forward to competing against the team that has won the most national championships in our sport.
“I think it’s a great stage and a great exhibition of our sport for people all over the country to see.”
UCLA leads the overall series 64-30 and in postseason play, the Bruins are 8-1 against Hawai’i.
In that Hawai’i win over UCLA on March 11, Mouchlias had 22 kills for Hawai’i and Voss had six blocks. In addition to David’s 21 kills, Zach Rama had 12 and McHenry 11 and five blocks.
The last time they played before that was in January 2018 and UCLA won in four.