Brandon Johnson | Off the Block senior contributor
Less than 48 hours after No. 1/2 UCLA swept rival No. 5/6 USC on the road, the two teams squared off once again in a packed Pauley Pavilion.
This time, the Trojans gave the Bruins all they could handle, before UCLA finally prevailed in the fifth set on Saturday.
“We talk about pressure and that response,” assistant coach John Hawks said. “We had to really grind out some points. … Our response to that pressure is what really stood out to me.”
The home-and-home series with USC was less than five days since the Bruins finished spring break, and what spring break it was.
For most college students, spring break is time for rest, recuperation, and catching their breath as they prepare to finish out the school year. For the UCLA men’s volleyball team, it was all about the work. Head coach John Speraw, who is also the chairman of the First Point Volleyball Foundation, traveled with his program of nearly 30 members, including all 22 players, to the South in an active attempt to grow the game.
“The term ‘grow the game’ is one of the most overused hashtags, but genuinely, that trip was about [just] that,” Hawks added.
The Bruins played road matches at Morehouse and Fort Valley State, two historically black colleges in their first season due in part to the hard work on Speraw and First Point. In addition, UCLA put on camps and clinics for local schools and coaches, providing exposure for high level men’s volleyball. And while the trip was a resounding success, both on and off the court, the work that was put in appears to have set up the 2022 squad for a run at the MPSF title and beyond.
Hawks said the trip was not only beneficial for growing the game of volleyball, but was also a possible turning point in the season for the UCLA squad.
“[Assistant coach] Spencer [McLachlin] was not with us on the trip, but he noticed a big change in us when we returned,” Hawks continued. “We are just a different team. Tonight wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t clean, but I think that some of the credit goes to our trip back East for sure.”
For UCLA middle attacker Merrick McHenry, he can see the importance of what a trip like this can mean for the sport as a whole, especially for players of color as brothers Sam and Kevin Kobrine who were battling on either side of the net Saturday.
“It’s really cool to see the brothers go at it,” McHenry said. “It’s just really cool to see guys of color being able to come out and play the sport.”
And for Speraw and the First Point Volleyball Foundation, that is what they are all about, providing opportunities.
On the court, Saturday was the first time that the Bruins have been tested in weeks. It was the first opportunity since their trip to experience adversity from the team across the net. Twice they came back from a one set deficit to finally finish the task in front of more than 4,000 raucous fans.
“It was really good for us, and I also think it was really good that we were put under some pressure,” McHenry said. “We are feeling a little pressure right now and it’s not gonna be easy.”
After completing the regular season sweep of the Trojans, the Bruins are now securely in the driver’s seat to take home the MPSF regular season crown.
“Beating USC two times in a row gives us a little bit of a confidence booster and gets us more excited to finish off MPSF play,” McHenry said. “Both of these matches, at USC and here, both were super beneficial to us when [it] comes to the long term.”