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How UCLA volleyball star Mac May mastered the art of failing

UCLA volleyball player Mac May winds up to strike the ball during a match at Pauley Pavilion.
(Courtesy of Han Duong / HereWeGoBru.com)

Mac May slammed down 39 kills against Washington State this season. It was the second most for a match in UCLA history. It wasn’t the match that best defined the star outside hitter.

That came against Stanford on Sept. 26 when the Bruins fell behind by two sets as May struggled to adjust a biomechanical kink in her hitting approach. She hit seven errors in the first three sets compared to three kills. But May, the program’s first 2,000-kill hitter in the last 20 years, didn’t back down.

She tallied the team’s only solo blocks with three and had three digs. She stayed engaged with her teammates as they rallied into a fifth set, then came alive with two kills and a block in the final frame as UCLA beat Stanford at home for the first time since 2016.

Statistically, it was May’s worst match of the season as she hit minus-0.022, but to UCLA coach Michael Sealy, it showed the best parts of the Bruins’ star.

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“It was her being mature enough to just stay in there,” Sealy said. “Sometimes thriving is just staying in longer than you think you can.”

The Washington Huskies were forced to postpone a game Thursday because of COVID-19 issues, leaving their game against UCLA on Sunday in limbo.

Sealy called bouncing back from failure a “lost art,” but May has made it into a career that could hang in the Louvre. Just the second UCLA player to win conference player of the year twice, May led the No. 13-seeded Bruins (23-5) into the NCAA tournament Friday at Pauley Pavilion for UCLA’s first home postseason matches since 2017. The Bruins swept Fairfield (24-8), 29-27, 25-23, 26-24, and will play Central Florida (26-6) in the second round Saturday at 7 p.m.

After coming one game short of sharing their first Pac-12 title since 1999, the Bruins are long shots in the national title conversation but could catch fire at the right time with May, the only player in school history to lead the team in kills for four seasons. She knows championship-winning volleyball already.

The graduate student helped UCLA win back-to-back NCAA beach volleyball championships in 2018 and 2019, the program’s first national titles after it became an NCAA sport in 2016.

Pairing with senior Elise Zappia on court No. 4 in 2018, May, who was recruited for indoor volleyball but had limited high school experience on the beach, was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team as the duo went 22-6. But May fell out of the rotation as a sophomore. She played only eight dual matches during UCLA’s second championship run, going 6-2, and watched from the sideline for the last six weeks of the season.

It was a dramatic fall for May. She was already a go-to player on the indoor team after being named to the All-Pac-12 first team as a sophomore. But she took the adjustment from indoor star to beach role player in stride. If anything, it was freeing, Sealy said.

Follow along as voice of UCLA Josh Lewin explains why he pushed to cover a basketball game in Vegas and football game in Pasadena on the same day.

“Mac’s identity was being an indoor elite player,” the coach added. “So she could go fail on the beach and it was not traumatic.”

For a UCLA beach program that was just five years old, any free player, especially a 6-foot-3 blocker like May, was an asset. But it wasn’t her world. She said she “no idea what to do on the beach.”

One of the most pressing areas of concern was her passing and ball control. While indoor teams that have six players per side can hide certain individuals on defense, the beach is an unforgiving world. Once opposing teams figured out that the imposing blocker couldn’t pass, May attracted nearly every serve.

Even on the indoor court, May panicked when the opposing team bumped the ball toward her. Always tall among her peers, the former Gatorade state player of the year from Iowa played middle blocker on her youth teams and outside hitter when she got to high school. No one expected her to drop back to pass.

May asked coaches to fast forward over her passing mistakes during film sessions as a freshman. Watching the clips now, she realizes it wasn’t as bad as it felt in the moment, but she was just popping the ball up to her teammates on luck and hope. Five years later, May confidently steps up to face any serve or attack.

She has her time on the beach to thank for that.

“It’s kind of like moving from that timid mindset and being afraid of failure whereas beach, you’re touching it so much you can’t be afraid of failure,” May said. “You have to be in there and you have to do it.”

UCLA is hemorrhaging football players to the transfer portal as part of a process that may prove more beneficial to the schools than the players.

The physical and mental cross training showed up when May returned to the indoor court. Her digs per set climbed steadily from 1.06 as a sophomore to 2.15 this season and peaked at 2.95 in 2019 when May won her first Pac-12 player of the year award. Instead of just being what Sealy called a “fast-ball pitcher,” May extended her range to hit any shot from the line all the way across the court and now ranks fourth on UCLA’s all-time kills list.

“She’s gotta be one of the best well-rounded players in the conference, if not the country,” Sealy said.

The 12th-year coach said he knew May had the physical tools to develop into a star for the Bruins. She had physicality at the net and came from a volleyball family with her mother and older sister having played the sport. They both won state titles in high school, a legacy May upheld at Wahlert Catholic High in Dubuque, Iowa.

The small city that sits on the Mississippi River where Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois meet, instilled May’s work ethic, but she always harbored bigger dreams. May quickly outgrew local club teams and, with her mom behind the wheel, started commuting an hour and a half each way to train with higher-level competition.

From having to drive 100 miles to practice, May can now scrimmage with the men’s team on campus or drive 20 minutes to the beach where public courts greet visitors in the sand. Coming to Southern California’s vibrant volleyball culture was like “a kid in a candy shop,” May said.

Iimar’i Thomas scored 19 points and Charisma Osborne had her seventh career double-double for No. 19 UCLA in a 73-65 win over St. John’s.

Adding an indoor title to her beach haul would be the ultimate treat for May. The Bruins haven’t won an indoor title since 2011.

“That’s what I hope: leaving a place better than I found it,” May said. “If that results in a championship some way or another, that would be awesome.”

Sitting in the top row of the bottom bowl in Pauley Pavilion, May glances toward the banners hanging from the ceiling.

“It’s UCLA,” she said gesturing to the rafters. “We gotta get something up there.”


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