NCAA men's volleyball championship: UCLA's top setter is more than set for NCAA tournament
Sunday's announcement of the seven men's volleyball teams that will participate in the NCAA tournament left nearly everyone perplexed.
Even those who made it in.
UCLA junior Micah Ma'a, whose Bruins were one of two at-large teams selected, said the team was caught off guard right away with the first games listed.
Fairly confident that they would get in, Ma'a said the room where the Bruins gathered to watch the selection show got a little tense for a couple of moments.
"We didn't think we had too much to worry about, but you never know, so we watched it as a team and were pretty surprised by the first couple of things," Ma'a said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We were kind of holding it tight there for a little bit. The Irvine-Hawaii thing was a toss-up, I guess. Our coaches don't even really know the exact criteria, so it's hard for me to have an opinion on it."
He said he called his former Punahou teammate and Hawaii libero Tui Tuileta the next day.
The Bruins were expecting to play the winner of the play-in match, but instead will open the tournament hosting Harvard on Tuesday.
UCLA is the host site for the NCAA championship this year, which provided extra motivation for the Bruins, who didn't make it a year ago after losing to Ohio State in five sets in a national semifinal in 2016.
"Last year we were all hurt, so we didn't get a good enough go at it," Ma'a said. "I think there's definitely added pressure (hosting) because you don't want to not be in it and watch some other teams come in here and compete, but we pretty much attacked this like a normal season with it definitely in the back of our mind."
Ma'a is one of four players with Hawaii ties to make the tournament this year.
The 6-3 setter and outside hitter has put together another superb season for UCLA. He ranks fifth in the country averaging 10.71 assists per set and is 10th nationally with an average of 0.482 aces per set.
UCLA (24-7 overall) finished 9-3 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and lost in the tournament final to Brigham Young in four sets on Saturday.
The Bruins swept the Cougars in their final match of the regular season two weeks earlier.
"I think we've done OK," Ma'a said. "I'm a perfectionist, so I really think we could have done better, but it is what it is."
UCLA hit .204 as a team in the tournament final after hitting .400 during its regular-season win over BYU.
Ma'a had his ninth consecutive match with at least two aces and is back to putting up similar numbers from behind the service line as he did when he made AVCA's All-America first team as a freshman.
A back injury hindered Ma'a during his sophomore season.
The state player of the year as a senior at Punahou in 2015, Ma'a has developed a close bond with head coach John Speraw, who was the primary reason Ma'a decided to attend UCLA.
"As biased as my opinion is, I think we have the best coaches in the nation," Ma'a said. "Coach Speraw is one of the best people that I've ever met. He's a very smart guy and I think the process of looking at volleyball through an intellectual point of view like he has has developed my growth as a volleyball player, and I'm very appreciative of it."
Ma'a has played on the USA Youth National Team and made the U.S. Men's Volleyball Junior National Team last summer when they played in the U21 World Championships in the Czech Republic.
He will surely have a future in professional volleyball, but first is hoping to get UCLA its first national title in men's volleyball since 2006.
"I think we've been playing a lot better defense and have been doing things better overall than we have in the past," Ma'a said. "I'm hoping we can improve, because I'm not sure right now where we're at we can get it done. I think our serving and our hitters will be the main two things that decide if we can pull it off."
Three other Punahou alumni will also play in the NCAA tournament.
UC Irvine junior middle blocker JB Kam is hitting .311 with 69 kills, 59 digs and 16 block assists in 66 sets.
Brigham Young sophomore setter Wil Stanley has 85 assists, 16 aces and 30 digs in 86 sets played and Long Beach State freshman Ethan Siegfried has played in 30 sets as a serving specialist with seven aces.