The Center of Effort Challenge last weekend, as expected, re-arranged the college-beach-volleyball landscape, producing a new No. 1 team in UCLA.
Coach Stein Metzger tells us where his Bruins stand going into crucial competitions before the NCAA Championships.
Also, three conferences will hold tournaments to highlight the weekend schedule.
We close out by sharing the weekly honor roll of decorated conference pairs.
UCLA makes late-season statements
Based on what transpired in the Center of Effort Challenge last weekend, UCLA seemingly put itself in the driver’s seat for a third NCAA beach-volleyball title. During the seminal competition in San Luis Obispo, California, on back-to-back days, the Bruins knocked off the then-No. 1 (TCU) and No. 2 (USC) teams in the country.
Not complicated. If No. 3 beats No. 1 and No. 2, who should be No. 1?
The voters in the AVCA poll rewarded UCLA (30-2) for its noteworthy victories by moving the Bruins up to No. 1, slotting TCU (31-1) at No. 2 and placing USC (24-2) at No. 3. As organic as that logic might seem, more meaningful volleyball will be played before the selection committee seeds its teams 1 through 17 for the NCAA Championships on May 3-7 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Fittingly, UCLA figures to play a significant role in that process.
To recap, in the Center of Effort, UCLA recorded a 3-2 victory over TCU in pool play and won the first-place dual against USC 3-2. The Horned Frogs bounced back in the third-place dual, tripping Florida State 3-2. The Seminoles (29-6), who dropped a 3-2 decision to USC, in their pool, remained at No. 4 in the weekly poll. All of these results illustrate the razor-thin margins separating the top four contenders for the NCAA title.
Tuesday, USC was at home against CSU Bakersfield and came away with a 5-0 sweep in which it didn’t lose a set.
The three Los Angeles program ranked among the top five will renew acquaintances on Thursday afternoon, when No. 5 Loyola Marymount (23-6), coming off a fifth-place finish in the Center of Effort, joins UCLA and USC in a high-powered tri-meet at the Bruins’ Mapes Beach venue. With numerous poll and NCAA seeding implications in play, the Pac-12 Network will air the three duals live.
Bruins still face tough sledding
Coach Stein Metzger has some chilling news for the rest of college beach volleyball. His top-ranked UCLA team that shook up the world, so to speak, might have “found our mojo.”
The Bruins, who began with great expectations, ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll, have lost only to USC 3-2 on March 5, and to FSU 3-2 on March 17. Yet a conversation with Metzger might give the impression that his team has struggled.
“We don’t feel like we’ve been playing our best volleyball, to be honest, this entire year, said Metzger, the former USA beach Olympian who guided UCLA to NCAA titles in 2018 and ‘19. “I looked at the schedule last week, and I recognized that, my goodness, that’s a pretty good record at (then) 26-2. But we just don’t feel like that team. This weekend, we finally found our mojo and it felt like the team we know we can be.”
In assessing the task ahead, Metzger made this frank statement:
“The top four teams right now can all beat each other. We’re beating SC and we’re beating TCU by a couple of points in a deciding third match. I would say that Florida State, TCU, USC and UCLA can all beat each other on a given day.”
Its massive three-way dual with USC and Loyola Marymount on Thursday, followed by the Pac-12 Championships on April 26-28 at Stanford, leave the Bruins with hurdles to negotiate to keep that top ranking, even though their spot in the 17-team, single-elimination Big Beach Dance is certainly secure. At worst, UCLA is a lock to be awarded one of the eight at-large bids by the selection committee, and Metzger doesn’t seem to sweat the seeding.
“As long as you are in the top four (in the NCAA draw), I don’t believe the seeding will matter all that much,” Stein said. “What it will come down to is who is going to play well when the pressure’s on. It’s all single-elim. Historically, we have almost lost first-round matches to Hawaii, to Stetson, and this is when we were 2 seeds, 3 seeds. It can be dicey, especially that first game because everybody’s got the jitters. If you’re not careful, you can play poorly and somebody could beat you.
“There is talent up and down the field, which has gotten so much deeper, not only from Institution 1 to 20, but from Courts 1 to 5. The 5s teams are so much better than they were in the past. In the early days, if you were one of the top schools, you could bank on your 4s and 5s winning. It’s not the same anymore, because every school has talent from top to bottom.”
But first things first: The Bruins flipped their lineup with noteworthy results in the Center of Effort and want to build on that.
“We certainly gained some momentum going into the later part of the season,” Metzger said in classic understated coachspeak. “We have one more regular-season [competition], Senior Day at UCLA on Thursday, and we will play USC again and a very good LMU team, which if you look at the scores (from San Luis Obispo), they almost knocked off everybody they played, and came up just short.
“In these two really tough matches, we hope to continue this momentum and take it right into the postseason. Coming into this year, we felt as if we had the roster and the talent to compete with anyone. It seems like things are starting to fall into place, hopefully at the right time. But, truthfully, we still are trying to figure out what is our best lineup.”
To that effect, last weekend Metzger moved 6-foot-2 Abby Van Winkle and 5-foot-7 junior Perri Brennan to Court 1 and dropped 6-foot senior Lexy Denaburg and 5-foot-11 freshman Maggie Boyd to No. 2. Denaburg and Boyd picked up important points in their matches against TCU and USC.
“That was a factor of who was hot at the right time,” said Stein, 50, who was one of the best players of his generation the AVP circuit. “Our 1s had taken a number of losses in a row. Boyd has been in-and-out, dealing with some overuse stuff. But she’s trending in the right direction.
“Maggie is a phenomenal player, a special one to watch. She isn’t the physical player who’s going to wow you with the big bounce, she’s the player that the game comes to her so easily. She just makes big plays at the right time and has really great vision, court sense and ball control. She makes all of her partners play better because of her ball control. She had a little rough patch in the middle of the season, and we knocked them down to the 2s. She and Denaburg had a great weekend.
“Now we are in a little bit of a conundrum,” Metzger conceded. “OK, who are our 1s and who are our 2s, which is a good problem to have, because we essentially have two 1s teams.”
Also scoring key points last weekend for the Bruins was the pair of 6-foot grad student Marlie Monserez, a Florida transfer who was a two-time indoor All-American setter, and Jessie Smith, the 2022 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Monserez and Smith bounced between the 5s against the Horned Frogs and the 4s against the Women of Troy.
“We didn’t know what to expect when Marlie first came to us,” Metzger said. “We took a chance on her as a project and she has learned a ton about how to be a beach-volleyball player, and even she would tell you that there was a lot to learn. Marlie really has come into her own in terms of understanding the beach game. Her skill sets have been great and she has continued to learn each and every day. In fact, I expect her to be 2% better in two weeks from now when we go to the NCAA Championships.”
Elsewhere on the schedule …
Conference tournaments in the Big West, Atlantic Sun and Southland will determine automatic bids to the NCAA Championship.
No. 8 Hawaii (26-6) and No. 11 Long Beach State (20-14) check in at the top of the seven-team list in the Big West Championships, a true double-elimination event Friday and Saturday on Queen’s Beach in Honolulu. The host Rainbow Wahine are 3-0 against Long Beach State, all by 3-2 margins. Cal Poly (despite its 11-22 record) and UC Davis (18-10) are dark horses. Pundits say that the Beach has a far-outside chance at an at-large bid to the NCAAs. Long Beach State went 1-3 at the Center of Effort, beating Cal Poly for seventh place, but lost 3-2 to USC and Loyola Marymount in pool play. Coverage of the Big West tournament will air on ESPN+.
The Atlantic Sun named No. 18 Stetson (18-14) as the top seed for its tournament Friday through Sunday. The eight-team event in Jacksonville, Florida, will be double elimination until the championship dual. Seeded second is Florida Gulf Coast (16-16) and third is host North Florida (21-9). The defending champion Hatters own a solid history as live underdogs in the NCAAs, have won seven ASUN titles, are 3-0 against FGCU (all by 3-2 scores) and split duals with North Florida (both requiring five matches). ESPN+ will stream all of the ASUN duals.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (21-9) earned the No. 1 seed in the Southland Championships on the strength of an undefeated record against league teams. The seven-team draw Friday through Sunday in Corpus Christi will use double elimination until the title dual. The host Islanders hold three victories over second-seeded Houston Christian (15-16) and a sweep of No. 3 seed Boise State (22-7). Factors to consider: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi won 4-1 at Arizona, Houston Christian knocked off Stanford 3-2 on neutral sand and Boise State is 7-0 against sub-.500 Pac-12 programs Oregon, Utah and Arizona State.
In addition to the City of Angels showdowns against UCLA and USC on Thursday, Loyola Marymount hosts two more ranked squads in a tri-meet Saturday against No. 13 Washington (19-12) and No. 20 Pepperdine (16-10). The Lions nipped the WCC rival Waves 3-2 for fifth place in the Center of Effort.
Also, No. 7 Grand Canyon (20-5) and No. 9 California (23-6) finish their regular seasons this weekend in an invitational at No. 10 Stanford (22-10). Four duals on Friday involve those three and St. Mary’s. On Saturday, Santa Clara and Pacific join the ranked squads in five duals. The host Cardinal come off a head-scratching weekend in Baton Rouge in which they topped No. 6 LSU (24-10) 3-2 but suffered the aforementioned loss to Houston Christian.
No. 17 Tulane (20-8) welcomes Southern Mississippi (15-20) for two duals Saturday in New Orleans. No. 19 Arizona (19-9) hosts desert rival Arizona State (10-11) on Friday in Tucson, looking to avenge a 3-2 loss in Tempe on March 29. The Wildcats lead the all-time series 15-6.
Finally, All six teams in the Ohio Valley converge on Morehead State in Kentucky for an OVC Weekend. Six duals each are scheduled on Friday and Saturday. UT Martin (20-8), the favorite in next week’s conference tournament in Martin, received votes (two) in the AVCA poll for the first time in program history. The Skyhawks are 7-0 in duals and 33-2 in matches against OVC teams.
Weekly honor roll
Conference pairs of the week included Marlie Monserez and Jessie Smith of UCLA, Pac-12; Skylar Allen and Simone Priebe of South Carolina, CCSA; Long Beach State’s Malia Gementera and Taylor Hagenah, Big West (for the second time this season); Maddy Delmonte and Ayla Johnson of Georgia State, Sun Belt (for the second week in a row); Shelby Beisner and Trinity Rosales of Florida Gulf Coast, Atlantic Sun (for the second time in 2023); Florida International’s Milica Vukobrat and Lucie Pokorna, Conference USA; Houston Christian’s Maddie Butters and Alison Stanfill, Southland (for the second time this season); and Maider Soto and Katie Malzahn of Lindenwood, Ohio Valley.