GULF SHORES, Ala. — His team was in the throes of battle with USC, at the time four of the five matches against archrival USC in the third sets, and UCLA coach Stein Metzger ran from one court to another, trying to keep track of an epic dual.
As he caught his breath he looked over and smiled.
“Isn’t this great?” he asked.
That it was. That match that capped perhaps the best day ever of the NCAA Beach Championships. This is the third year of the event and there have been some magnificent moments the first two years, but Saturday on the white sands we saw:
— Fourth-seeded Florida State win its way into Sunday’s 1 p.m. Central title match after beating third-seeded Hawai’i 3-2 in a dual that was simply gripping;
— The end of the legendary career of Nina Matthies, whose second-seeded Pepperdine Waves lost to fifth-seeded USC 3-2;
— And the end of the three-year reign of USC, which won the last AVCA national beach title and then the first two NCAA crowns without losing a match. The Women of Troy fell to UCLA in the last match of the day and, as Metzger said, it was all that and more.
And we are left with a 10:30 a.m. Central Saturday matchup that pits Hawai’i against UCLA for the right to play Florida State.
In order, USC beat Pepperdine, UCLA bounced LSU, Florida State beat Hawai’i and UCLA beat USC.
Start with Pepperdine. It came down to the No. 4s, when Haley Hallgren and Alexandra Poletto beat Skylar Caputo and Alexis Filippone 21-18, 16-21, 15-12. As the last point hit the sand off the block, Matthies was still processing before she hit the handshake line.
USC coach Anna Collier held her hand longer than normal.
“I said, ‘Nina, thank you for everything you’ve done for beach volleyball, NCAA volleyball and congratulations on your retirement. You’re a legend, I respect you, great match.’ ”
Matthies knew, of course, that this day was coming but was hoping it would be on Sunday.
“This year the points have gone our way when we’ve needed them to,” Matthies said. What’s more, Pepperdine had beaten USC four times this season.
“You play someone five times and the odds are getting like,” Mattheis said with a laugh, “at some point in time it’s gonna bounce the other way after it bounced your way a month ago.
“I think all the teams are evenly matched, which I think is fantastic for the sport. Every match has been really close among the top teams and sometimes it doesn’t go your way. Sorry it was that way for us today, but I love my team and I love what we’ve accomplished this year and I’m really proud of what they’ve done all year long.”
And now she’s done.
“It’s all about them,” Matthies said, nodding towards her team. “They’ve got to come back.” And she laughed again. “I get to go.”
Florida State’s win over Hawai’i came down to the No. 5 position where coach Brooke Niles made a switch before this tournament, replacing sophomore Francesca Goncalves’ sophomore teammate Eva Torruella with freshman Madison Fitzpatrick.
“It was crazy, because we really haven’t played together much,” Goncalves admitted. “She was kind of thrown into this lineup and she has proven time and time again she belongs here.”
And wouldn’t you know that it came down to Fitzpatrick, who is from Tallahassee where FSU is located, hitting the winning point to the far right corner in a 24-22, 21-23, 15-12 win over Hawai’i’s Paige Dreeuws and Hannah Zalopany.
“There was a wall around the court,” Goncalves said. “You couldn’t hear anything.”
But she was loud enough to tell Fitzpatrick to go “high line” on the last shot.
“I just kept working hard and everything worked out,” said Fitzpatrick, who was told just a few days before the tournament that the job she once had was hers again.
“Every points counts,” Goncalves said. “And whether we’re the first team to get a point on the board or the third or get that clincher like today, or the other teams are picking up the slack for us, it’s a team sport and everyone matter just as much as everyone else. It couldn’t be a more beautiful system.”
UCLA has been ranked No. 1 most of the season, but was stunned on Friday by Florida State, so the Bruins had to win twice Saturday.
“What a great match,” Metzger, whose team won all five first sets against USC and then had to nearly go the distance to win it. “And they’ve all been like that.
“This tournament just keeps getting better and better. So competitive. You’ve really got to find your mojo here, because if you show up a little shaky, someone’s gonna knock you out. And that’s what happened against Florida State.”
After that, Metzger took the team, which admitted it got woken up, to play miniature golf and do “a reset.” It paid off.
“We’ve been climbing the hill for so long that we wanted it so bad it’s not always easy to play care free,” Metzger said. “And I think the loss yesterday helped us to play care free.”
UCLA and Hawai’i split in Hawai’i and beat the Sandbows at UCLA.
“I totally expect it to go down to the wire.”
The way things have gone here the first two days, you couldn’t imagine anything less.