Saturday, June 15

UCLA men’s volleyball players grow in 2023-2024, share goals of representing US

(Photos by Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff, Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin senior staff. Photo illustration by Mikayla Kwok/Daily Bruin)

Ethan Champlin held his knees to his chest as tears streaked down.

Cementing his second and final NCAA trophy, the senior outside hitter’s Bruin tenure officially ended.

But Champlin and several members of UCLA men’s volleyball are miles from done with the sport. The 2024 NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player rested for less than three weeks before departing Los Angeles to join USA Volleyball for the summer.

Champlin spent past summers developing and honing his volleyball skills. His appearance on the 2024 Volleyball Nations League 30-man roster marks his second summer representing the country.

“They get to observe the guys that have been out of college for a while playing professionally — how they handle themselves,” said John Speraw, who has worked closely with Champlin in Speraw’s dual role as head coach for UCLA and the U.S. men’s national volleyball team. “That really carries over in how they come back to UCLA and how that impacts our team culture.”

USA Volleyball assembles teams to participate in various international competitions — including the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics. The national squad at this year’s VNL, which includes 10 Olympians and second-string national players, was recently defeated by Canada and is ranked No. 5. Champlin, redshirt senior middle blocker Merrick McHenry and second — and third — string players attended the Pan American Cup hosted by North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation in 2023.

(Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

Sophomore outside hitter Zach Rama helped the U.S. clinch gold at the 2023 Pan-American Cup Final Six — the same summer in which he earned a spot representing his nation at the Under-21 World Championship.

Rama credits his mastery of the serve-receive, out-of-system attacks and shot selection to the mentorship he’s received from Champlin and redshirt senior outside hitter Alex Knight.

Sometimes though, the presence of a fellow Bruin can prove reassuring in more than one way.

“You travel to those new gyms and new places and you know those familiar, comforting faces,” Rama said. “It’s really nice to be able to lean on this.”

Speraw, who has headed the national team since 2013, found comfort beyond the Bruins he coaches over the summer.

As the coach travels across the world with his squad, he cherishes being able to pick up where he left off.

“The nice part about coaching Team USA is that a lot of your players don’t graduate after four years. They can be here for a long time,” Speraw said. “I’ve been through marriages and children, and as life continues for these players, I get to be a part of that and share those experiences too.”

(Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

Speraw’s voice revealed mirth as he described the connection he holds with the crew that drives his ambition to see a generation of volleyball players — a last Olympic year for many of them — triumph in Paris.

“There are so many stories I could tell from over the years. There are so many places, countries, travel, competitive moments, locker rooms,” Speraw said, laughing. “Probably more than a book’s worth, and maybe someday I’ll write it.”

Cooper Robinson — UCLA’s redshirt sophomore outside hitter who spent a week with the men’s collegiate national team in June — grew significantly while working alongside old club teammates and new faces.

Five-hour long team trainings were followed by gatherings and outings. And despite being foes in college, Robinson and his pack understood one another schools’ athletic philosophies.

Robinson and Rama followed an almost identical daily routine, but for the latter, training days preceded tournaments. Rama recognized that national contention is more demanding than at the collegiate level, characterized by the frenzy of the cowbell-wearing stadium crowd.

But having Speraw as their college coach helped the Bruins feel well-equipped among their peers.

“The Olympians are learning the same way I’m learning, and that’s so cool,” Robinson said. “Certain technical aspects of the game and certain plays, certain systems were a lot more refined on my end. … You already know the majority of USA systems and what they expect, so I feel we have a step up.”

Speraw appreciates the symbiosis between UCLA and USA Volleyball — once one season ends, Speraw readies for the next.

Despite a lack of time to reflect, the two-time AVCA Coach of the Year said he’s grateful to continuously learn.

“There’s only one of these positions in the United States of America. I’m fortunate enough to have this position and have had it for a long time,” Speraw said. “There isn’t a time when our national anthem is being played or I’m stepping out of the court representing our nation that I don’t take a moment of pause and think about how grateful I am to be in this situation.”

Robinson will join USA Volleyball to potentially be part of the 2024 Pan-American Cup team. Both he and Rama — alongside Knight — are on the training roster for the 2024 Pan-American Cup Final Six team.

The goal remains the same as in previous summers — milk the experience for all it’s worth.

“The summers are very impactful for a volleyball player because technically it’s our time off, but if you want to be great, you cannot take time off,” Robinson said.

(Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

The outside hitter isn’t the only one who understands summer’s importance. Robinson recalled his first day with the men’s collegiate national team, when he showed up 15 minutes early, only to be taken aback when he realized he was the last one to arrive.

And Robinson — who quickly began reaching practices a little earlier — saw tangible rewards as two measly starts during the 2023 season turned into a 2024 AVCA All-America honorable mention. A breakout sophomore season manifested itself in 2.57 kills per set after last year’s 0.86.

This summer, Rama will put his 6-foot-8 stature to use by spending his free time playing basketball. Meanwhile, Robinson will be on the sand playing beach volleyball — the sport he claims is his “true passion.”

“Yes, I’m tired from this year, but I think that pushing myself — especially physically and mentally — it’ll definitely help my career forward,” Robinson said. “My goal is to be in the 2028 L.A. Olympics. That would be fantastic, so this is just another step along the way.”

As Speraw gears up for the Olympics, he’ll watch over as his players represent their nation on various courts. And he’s sure of one thing.

“They’re ready,” the coach said.

Editor in chief

Wang is the 2024-2025 editor in chief. She was previously the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor and the 2022-2023 Opinion editor. She is Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to Copy, News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Design, Photo and Video.

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