Setter Miles Partain leads UCLA volleyball to NCAA semifinal

Setter Miles Partain leads UCLA volleyball to NCAA semifinal

John Speraw has a former high school basketball star, first-team All-Americans and gritty reserves on his roster. Attacking players rotate in and out for the UCLA coach, but one player never wavers.

No matter who joined Miles Partain on the court Tuesday night, the UCLA sophomore setter remained consistent and composed as No. 3 UCLA flexed its depth in a 25-23, 22-25, 26-24, 25-19 victory over No.5 Pepperdine at Pauley Pavilion.

Partain, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation player of the year, had 43 assists and five kills as UCLA (22-4) advanced to face No. 1 Long Beach State in Thursday’s NCAA semifinal. Showing experience beyond his years, Partain has UCLA two wins away from the program’s first national title since 2006.

“It is really hard to be a first-year setter and get this far,” Speraw said. “I’m really confident in his ability to grow and develop. This is just the beginning for him, and we’re a good team when he’s playing well.”

The Bruins hit .437, eclipsing .300 for the 17th consecutive match. They entered the NCAA tournament as the best hitting team in the country despite their top attacker, first-team All-American Ethan Champlin, ranking only 78th nationally in 2.59 kills per set. Instead of a single dominant force, the Bruins thrive on what Partain calls a “six-dimensional” approach: UCLA has six players with at least 100 kills.

Opposite Kevin Kobrine, a four-year varsity basketball and volleyball player at Corona del Mar High, led the Bruins with 16 kills, followed by eight from Champlin and seven from middle blocker Merrik McHenry, who added one solo block and five block assists. Austin Wilmot led MPSF tournament champion Pepperdine with 12 kills and two block assists.

Sam Burgi, who had six kills and two digs, epitomized UCLA’s bench depth. The redshirt junior was inserted as a defensive sub to stabilize UCLA’s passing in the second set after playing just three sets the entire season. Then he hammered home a set-clinching kill to finish the third before the Bruins comfortably pulled away for the fourth.

“Burgi goes down on the list of big-time performances from guys coming off the bench when it mattered most,” Speraw said. “I had 100% confidence in him to do it.”

Speraw, who won two national championships at UCLA under legendary head coach Al Scates, said this team’s depth reminds him of Bruins teams of old. It’s not uncommon for the second team to defeat the starters in practice.

UCLA volleyball’s Merrick McHenry, center, celebrates with the team during a match against Pepperdine on Tuesday.

(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

The embarrassment of hitting riches is a dream for Partain, who balances the need to feed the hot hand while keeping opponents guessing.

“Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who’s the best choice,” Partain said before the match. “But then again, it’s nice that if I make the wrong choice, it’s not wrong by much.”

Partain, who played in only seven games last year, is UCLA’s first MPSF player of the year since 2000, helping the Bruins win their first regular-season conference title since 1998.

The Pacific Palisades native is UCLA’s fourth starting setter in as many years. It’s the volleyball equivalent of changing quarterbacks in four straight seasons. The vital position was Speraw’s top concern entering this season when honorable mention All-American Sam Kobrine transferred to USC as a grad student. Despite a 15-6 record in the pandemic-affected season, Speraw thought his team was one of the nation’s best, especially after beating then-No.2 Brigham Young in the final regular-season match.

Speraw wondered whether his team could handle losing Sam Kobrine’s control of the offense. Partain proved it was no problem.

“For us to have this season,” Speraw said, “I think is really a testament to Miles.”

A budding star on the professional beach volleyball tour, Partain brings key versatility on the indoor court. In addition to setting up his teammates, the Bruins use him as a left-handed attacking option in transition. His 68 kills entering the tournament were the second-most for a starting setter in the NCAA tournament, trailing only Hawaii’s Jakob Thelle (72).

Hitting translates easily from beach to indoor, Partain said. He and his older brother Marcus, a third-year setter for UCLA, were the youngest pair to qualify for an AVP main draw, making the cut at AVP Hermosa at 15 and 17 years old, respectively, in 2017. Miles was named AVP rookie of the year in 2019 and earned best defensive player honors in 2021.

Miles reads the game at a high level because of his experience on the beach, Speraw said, and brings elite skill with the ball. Partain said the biggest carryover from the beach is his ability to play through pressure moments. He proved it Tuesday by coolly leading UCLA through its first NCAA appearance since 2018.

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