Merrick McHenry plays volleyball for UCLA. | Instagram

The UCLA Bruins men’s volleyball team just won their 20th title in school history, and out gay middle blocker Merrick McHenry was one of the biggest reasons why.

The dynamic redshirt junior led the nation in hitting percentage this season, with his .537 mark ranking second all-time for the storied program. On defense, McHenry’s 107 blocks were a career high, and he ranked eighth in the nation in blocks per set at 1.081.

Coming out of small-town Texas, McHenry didn’t move out to California, a volleyball hotbed, for club opportunities as a high school student. Instead, he stayed home.

His mother, a former middle blocker at Texas Tech, is a volleyball coach herself.

“The reason I love volleyball so much is my mom,” he recently told the Daily Bruin. “She showed me the sport and let me do what I wanted. She showed me what it was, guided me along the way and supported me in getting me to tournaments and paying for everything I needed.”

While McHenry cherishes his childhood in the Lone Star state — his signature long high knee socks are inspired by Texas women’s volleyball — he didn’t feel at peace with his identity as a gay man.

When he arrived on UCLA’s Westwood campus, he felt at ease. McHenry is maturing in all aspects of his life.

“[To] be a gay man and grow up in Texas … I just felt out of place,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “To be able to be around people who still love me despite what a lot of parts of the world might see as different … it’s a journey and it still is a journey but I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my own skin as a 22-year-old nowadays. I think it’s only just going to get better for me.”

Indeed. Following last year’s semifinals disappointment (the Bruins had a two-set lead before falling to Long Beach State), McHenry returned this season with vengeance.

The 22-year-old recorded 11 kicks and 16 total attempts in Saturday’s championship match against Hawaii.

“It’s just me being myself. I’m not trying to be extra, I’m not trying to do more,” he told the LA Times. “I’m just ultimately trying to show people that you can be yourself and you’re still going to be loved and appreciated.”

With UCLA capturing its first title since 2006, McHenry is definitely feeling the love around campus. As he rightfully predicts, it will only get better from here.

Follow Merrick McHenry on Instagram.