The stage was set and the games were about to begin.
Then, for the third season in a row, COVID-19 forced a hiatus.
No. 2 UCLA men’s volleyball (1-0) was set to open its season at the UC Santa Barbara Asics Invitational on Jan. 6 before more than half of the team entered COVID-19 protocols, according to redshirt junior to Kevin Kobrine.
As a result, Bruins’ season opener was delayed by more than a week, marking the third straight year in which UCLA’s season was directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the cancellation, coach John Speraw said on January 12 that the lack of healthy players hampered the team’s preparation.
“We just tried to get our team back to health and get more players available,” Speraw said. “It’s been a challenge, and it’s been for a lot of teams this season — just to have enough guys to run full training and work on some of the systems we needed to implement before the start of the year.”
The challenge of implementing his team’s offensive system was further complicated, according to Speraw, with a new setter for the third consecutive season.
“It always takes time to connect offensively,” Speraw said. “We’ll just have to take it day by day and game by game to keep refining our attack and connections.”
With red shirt sophomore Marcus Partain, sophomore Miles Partain and junior Ayrton Garcia-Jurado all officially listed as setters on the team’s roster, the Bruins have a multitude of options at the position.
Despite early season cancellations and setter sales, UCLA won Princeton in its season opener on January 15. However, Speraw said the team’s efficiency – while expected – had a lot of room for improvement.
After the win, Kobrine felt he fell short of expectations and added that the experience during the UCSB tournament would have been helpful.
“Honestly, I thought that was one of my worst matches,” said Kobrine.
Nevertheless, Kobrine finished the game with a team-high 11 kills with a .375 success rate.
In his first collegiate game since before the COVID-19 pandemic, redshirt senior center blocker JR Norris IV committed two service errors — including one on his first serve of the game — but posted a career-high six kills and four block assists. Norris said his return to court did not come without some early battle.
“I was a little nervous in the first set, even on my first serve,” Norris said. “When I threw it up, I’ll be honest, I lost it and just waved at the fences.”
Despite the COVID-19-related hiatus, Speraw said the team is looking to capitalize on its opportunities.
“Obviously when you play your first game you are a bit nervous; you’re just a little rusty,” Speraw said. “I thought we were going out and playing pretty steady volleyball for this time of year.”