Brandon Johnson | Off the Block special contributor
WESTWOOD, California — Don’t count the Bruins out just yet.
Another top-10 matchup — this time a late season non-conference match — provided an opportunity for No. 7/7 UCLA to make a statement about its end of the year intentions. On this night, a renewed focus to win the MPSF Tournament gave the host No. 7/7 UCLA a four-game non-conference win against No. 5/5 Lewis to propel its NCAA Tournament at-large bid hopes.
UCLA coach John Speraw earlier this week appeared on the podcast “The Net Live” and gave an interesting insight into the thinking of the Bruins.
“Your whole thought process changes. There is a chance that we can get an at-large bid…but it’s pretty bleak,” Speraw said. “We changed a lot about what we are doing in the weight room and how we are training. It’s about winning that [MPSF] Tournament.”
The winner of the eight-team MPSF Tournament earns an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. In addition, two at-large bids are awarded to complete the six-team NCAA Tournament field.
For the past few weeks, the hopes for the Bruins to make the NCAA Tournament have been fading with each injury to their All-Americans. Injuries and five-set losses have crippled the at-large bid chances of a team that came into the season with championship aspirations.
UCLA assistant coach Brad Keller recognized the importance of this victory against the Flyers but knows the road is still tough for the Bruins.
“Real important match for us. At the end of the day, our practices are intense and we do great things. You move on, you accept where you are and what you have to do and you go to work,” Keller said. “We need to get healthy, we need to find rhythm, and we need to execute. Wins are important no matter what. [But] for RPI it’s important, for morale it’s important. We struggled in the month of February and so to come out and get a [win] after a week of preparation and recoup I think is really good.”
All-American middle blocker Mitch Stahl returned to the court after missing significant time with two different injuries this year. His affect was felt throughout the match, especially on the service where he applied constant pressure to the visiting Flyers’ passers.
Lewis outside attacker Trevor Weiskircher was impressed by the play of UCLA, especially the serve of Stahl.
“Stahl’s serve, it was on tonight. It was tough,” he said. “I’ve never seen a serve like that. But it was a good learning experience.”
Overall, the depth of the Bruins was on full display in this match as the team has been searching for the right lineup to click while dealing with all their key injuries.
“We have so many ballers”, Stahl said. “We like to boast and say we have the deepest team in the country and I truly believe that. In playoff atmospheres, you have to have guys come in and perform.”
On Wednesday night, it was middle attacker Oliver Martin and outside attacker JT Hatch would made the biggest contributions.
Martin starting in place of a sick Daenan Gyimah had 12 kills with an .857 hitting efficiency. Hatch came off the bench to chip in a match-high tying four aces, including back-to-back aces to end the match.
Stahl was excited to be back on the court and is eager to make a push as the season approaches its conclusion.
“Being with my brothers is all I care about,” he said. “But I’m back and I’m stoked to move forward with this team. I think that we have a lot of potential. We have lost a lot of really close sets that I don’t think we should have lost. But that is in the past and all we can really do is battle and keep going-game after game.”
For the Bruins, the task at hand is simple — win the MPSF Tournament. But the importance of this win will be in the heads of the NCAA Tournament selection committee as they decide which teams will earn an at-large spot.
“I think we are the most dangerous team in the country. We have the most weapons,” Stahl said. “Whenever we have three starters out and we are still competing, it says something about our depth and the way we train in practice. We are gonna be deadly once we get hot.”
Few would disagree with this sentiment as the Bruins appear to be righting the ship just in time for the postseason.