Dec. 21, 2001
Only a coach of Al Scates' stature would say that his team will be better the year following the loss of a pair of first-team All-Americans, who led the Bruins to the NCAA finals. Of course, no coach has his record of success or his talent pool.
"I think this team will be better," said Scates, collegiate volleyball's most successful coach with 18 NCAA titles and 1,019 career victories to start the 2002 campaign. "Because of the improvement of the returning players and because of our depth."
He has a point. Despite losing a pair of All-Americans, and their 107 aces, 624 kills and 215 blocks, the Bruins have improved their blocking and figure to be better defensively.
As a veteran team, the Bruins boast five returnees who have played in at least one NCAA Championship match. Four of those five have rings from the 2000 championship season.
And, considering that the Bruins will not return a pair of 2001 lettermen (who played in a total of 43 matches), one would surmise that Scates has more than a hunch of what his team's chances will be in May.
Following are capsule summaries of UCLA's personnel, position-by-position.
Junior Rich Nelson returns for his second season as the starter with a much better understanding of the offense and opponents' defenses.
"Rich is more aware of what the defense is doing and what plays he has available," said Scates. "He's calling the right plays now and setting the right players. I was very happy with his Fall season."
Last season Nelson earned All-MPSF Honorable Mention honors while recording 1,477 assists. He improved his digging average, kill percentage and kills per game average. He also ranked fifth in league assists, averaging 13.0 per game.
Nelson's backup will be redshirt freshman Jimmy Sepulveda, who learned the setting position over the summer in his native Puerto Rico.
"Jimmy brings a lot of fire and competitiveness to the team," said Scates. "He makes things competitive for the first team. He's an inspirational player."
Sepulveda, a volleyball and basketball standout at Colegio Marista, was a four-time PRHSAA selection in volleyball as a middle blocker and quick hitter. He also was a veteran on Puerto Rico's Jr. National Team, and lists his highlight as beating the U.S. Team three times, twice for medals.
The outside hitters will be led by senior captain Matt Komer, who begins his final season with added passing responsibilities.
"Matt has improved his passing and blocking," said Scates. "He will be passing half the court and he'll be hitting a lot of balls. "His serve scored a lot of points for us this Fall."
Komer earned Outrigger Hotels Invitational honors last season and passed well, filling in for Mark Williams when the latter turned his ankle early in the year.
Last season Komer enjoyed successful matches against Hawaii, when he recorded his third career double-double (13 kills, 11 digs), and when he slammed 22 kills in a relief role against Long Beach State in the MPSF semifinals. Against USC on the road, he served two straight points in the Bruins' crucial 33-31 victory in Game 2.
Expected to start at the other outside hitter spot is freshman Jonathan Acosta, another Puerto Rican. Acosta battled a pulled abdominal muscle last season, and eventually was awarded a medical redshirt season.
In his only start against USC last season, he recorded two kills and a block assist. "He could have helped us last season," said Scates. "He's the complete package: defense, great range and a good server. And he hits the ball hard, he's a terminator."
Another veteran of the Jr. National Team system, Acosta was a two-year varsity outside hitter at Colegio San Ignacio where he led his team to a runner-up finish in the Puerto Rico High School Tournament.
Mount is one of the players whose improvement has Scates excited.
"Cameron has been playing the best volleyball of his career this Fall," said Scates. "His blocking has greatly improved and so has his jump serve.
"I think he'll be an excellent hitter this season."
Mount is the team's leading returning jump server and hitter. He served 33 aces last season, one more than Komer, and averaged 3.15 kills per game. He also recorded 130 digs (1.13dpg) and 59 total blocks (0.51bpg). Improvement on his defensive numbers would excite any coach.
Debban will back up all three outside hitters. He earned a letter last season and is greatly improved.
"He can play three positions well and will back up Mount, Komer and Acosta," said Scates. "He's hitting the ball with more heat and he has more shots than last year."
Also in the mix at the passing position is redshirt freshman Gray Garrett.
"He is one of the best passers on the team," said Scates. "He has a good jump serve." Another option is second-year freshman Brennan Prahler, an outstanding athlete with only three years of volleyball experience.
"Brennan is a very physical player," said Scates. "He is one of the best athletes on the team. He has a lot of potential as an outside hitter and he's a tremendous blocker."
Junior Scott Morrow returns as a legitimate All-America candidate. As one of the nation's top blockers, he led the Bruins in bloc-king average last season at 1.18bpg, and ranked second on the team in hitting percentage at .392.
"Scott proved he could block the best players in the world on our European Tour," said the head coach. "He will be a major factor in stopping the top hitters this year. He is a big force at the net."
Morrow earn-ed NCAA All-Tournament Team honors last season and currently ranks eighth on the UCLA career total blocks chart with 351. As a freshman in 2000, he recorded 220 total blocks, one shy of the single season UCLA record.
As a hitter, he hit .400 or better in 16 matches last season and spiked a season high of 14 kills in the NCAA final.
The Bruins' other quick hitter will be third-year sophomore Chris Pe?a, another vastly improved player.
"Pe?a was our steadiest hitter in the Fall," said Scates. "He has improved his strength, hitting and blocking. He can also pass and dig, and he has a good jump serve."
Pe?a earned a letter last season by playing in seven matches. He averaged 1.0bpg, 2.1kpg and hit .364 in 14 games of service.
Scates also likes his attitude.
"He's a fiery, aggressive player-just what we need at the net," said Scates. Backing up both players will be 6-7 true freshman David Russell.
"[David] Russell is one of the quickest players in the league," said Scates, who has guided the Bruins to 23 league titles. "He's a quick jumper, very explosive and he's easy to set. He will be an effective player at the quick hitter position and can play opposite."
As a senior at Royal HS, Russell recorded 618 kills, 152 digs and 125 blocks. He led his team to three league championships and a runnerup finish in the CIF Div. II playoffs.
Sophomore Adam Shrader has nailed down the Libero position for the second straight season. As a redshirt freshman last season, he earned Volleyball Magazine Honorable Mention All-America honors.
"Adam was outstanding as a freshman last season," said Scates. "This year he is digging more balls and he works well with Komer passing half the court."
Shrader recorded 256 digs last season for an average of 2.1dpg, which ranked ninth nationally and second in league play. He also earned 2nd Team All-MPSF honors.
He will be backed up by freshmen redshirts Aaron Wexler and Aaron Dodd.