The wait is over. The drought is over. After 17 years of disappointment, UCLA men’s volleyball is back where it finds its rightful place: at the top.
The program, which has long dominated the sport, celebrated again Saturday after winning its 20th NCAA championship and first since 2006. The top-seeded Bruins ended the longest title drought in their history with a 28-26, 31-33, 25-21, 25-21 win over runner-up Hawaii that was a study in redemption, steady play and endurance .
Sophomore outside hitter Ido David, who was so ill with a viral infection that there were doubts over his ability to play earlier in the week, used the hands that had sparked thunderous kills to shake tears in the handshake line at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax to wipe. Va.
Coach John Speraw, who won his first coaching title with the Bruins after winning two as a player and three more as an assistant under the legendary Al Scates, battled the feelings he knows felt after the fall of the two-time defending champions are inevitable.
“It’s worth a bit of raw emotion,” Speraw, who suffered his fair share of near misses with his alma mater, including a loss to Long Beach State at the 2018 championship, said by phone. “It’s been an incredible journey and I think everyone who’s happy for us isn’t just happy for this unique moment, I think they’re happy for the journey we’ve had and all the time and effort that has been invested.”
Scates said via email that he watched the game from home and celebrated by texting numerous former players. He had told former Bruins star Sinjin Smith during their weekly golf game Friday that UCLA would up its record title total and avenge a March loss to Hawaii at Honolulu’s Rainbow Warriors course.
It was an ensemble effort with kills from David, high-flying acrobatics from Merrick McHenry, accomplished serve from JR Norris IV, stable setting from newcomer Andrew Rowan and all-around excellence from the tournament’s MVP Alex Knight.
“It was just a lot of good games after good games after good games,” said Speraw. “There wasn’t a single signature game that made the difference. I think we just continued the game we’ve been playing all season.”
The Bruins (31-2) clinched the opener after back-to-back kills from David accounted for the last two points. They were on the verge of a breakaway after taking a 19-13 lead in the second set. But a serve into the net sparked a huge Hawaii comeback in an epic back-and-forth battle that ultimately saw the Rainbow Warriors (29-3) prevail by their eighth set point.
UCLA trailed 9-7 in the third set before winning comfortably, a McHenry ace breaking a 10-10 tie to help the Bruins pull away. The fourth movement unfolded in a similar way. A Norris ace gave UCLA a 9-8 advantage, with the Bruins leading to the last point.
UCLA’s celebratory dog poop was cut short when Hawaii challenged the final point. But officials decided Ethan Champlin’s killing stood and celebrations resumed and streamers fell from the rafters.
David had a season-high 23 kills, Rowan had a season-high 60 assists, and Norris had a career-high five aces alongside Knight’s overall contributions of 15 kills, six digs, three blocks and two aces.
UCLA was the volleyball power that rose from nothing in the 1960s. Scates once sparked interest in the sport by nailing posters to telephone poles in beach towns across Southern California to promote a triple header at the Pauley Pavilion.
Scates won a record 19 NCAA titles, nearly doubling John Wooden’s basketball team total. Nobody was more aware of this story than Speraw, who led UC Irvine to three national championships before replacing Scates in 2013.
What followed was a decade of frustration. There were two losses in the semifinals, on top of that devastating championship setback against Long Beach State when UCLA squandered a two-set-to-one lead at Pauley Pavilion. The breakthrough came on Saturday.
“I’m just happy for everyone involved in the program,” Speraw said, “from all the alumni who wanted it so badly and were so supportive but never heard anything but love and support.” I’m also very, very grateful to Al Scates and what he’s done for me and the foundation he’s laid with this program and the expectation that we’ll win some championships to now go out there and have it done.”