From planking in the street to Gulf Shores, UCLA wins NCAA beach title

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UCLA championship-beach volleyball-NCAA volleyball
The Bruins celebrate winning the NCAA beach title/Aubrey Yeo photo

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Planking in the street?

Sarah Sponcil, the spunky junior transfer from Loyola Marymount who set for UCLA this past indoor season, knew.

“We believed in each other and I knew from the beginning that this was a special group of girls,” Sponcil said, wiping her Gulf of Mexico-soaked hair off her face. “We trained like there was no tomorrow and we played like it was our last match, which it was.

“And we just battled every single day. We were going in for extra training, going in for extra workouts, we were like planking in the streets.”

She laughed and got louder

“We’d drop and say let’s freakin’ plank right here! We were literally on the street in Westwood saying, ‘Do we want to win a natty? Let’s get down and do this right here.’ It was just nuts. We went to sleep dreaming of a natty, we woke up thinking of a natty. Yeah, we worked really hard.”

And Sunday afternoon the Bruins reaped the benefits, taking home the NCAA’s National Beach Championship trophy and then taking what has become a traditional post-match dip in the Gulf.

UCLA, seeded No. 1, had to come through the bottom half of the bracket after getting knocked off by fourth-seeded Florida State in their second match. They responded by beating UCLA and USC on Saturday and then, on Sunday morning, sent third-seeded Hawai’i packing 3-2.

None of which surprised Florida State coach Brooke Niles. She predicted Friday they would play again.

“I knew we would,” said Niles, whose team had its best season yet. “They’re a great team. They’re the best ball-control team besides us,” she added with a smile, “and they have three good coaches, and so do we.”

UCLA of the Pac-12, ranked No. 1 most of the season, finished 40-4. Florida State, champion of the Coastal Collegiate Sports Conference, ended 33-7.

The clinching match turned out to be at No. 2, where Sponcil paired with sophomore Lily Justine, whose kill into the left corner gave the Bruins a 21-18, 21-19  victory over Florida State’s Katie Horton and Hailey Luke.

USC, which UCLA sent packing Saturday, won the first two NCAA titles, so this, of course, is UCLA’s first.

The showcase team for UCLA is the No. 1 pair of twins Nicole and Megan McNamara, the junior Canadians who fly early from nearby Pensacola, Fla., on Monday morning for an FIVB tournament in Bangkok, Thailand.

Interestingly, they never got to finish their matches against either USC or FSU. When the match ended, they had to stop, figure out where the clinching occurred and sprint to their fellow Bruins.

“I know, but I’m just so happy that we got to win and this is a team sport,” Megan McNamara said. “So if you don’t take care of your own court you can rely on your teammates. I mean, we were gonna get it done in both of those games, but we’re so happy we got to dogpile with all of our teammates, no matter which court it was on.”

The Bruins, who won 35 of their final 36 matches, won the 116th NCAA championship in UCLA history.

Florida State’s Niles was proud of her team after opening with a win over USC and then beating UCLA later Friday before beating Hawai’i on Saturday to move into the title match unscathed.

“Nothing but positive things will come out of this,” Niles said.

UCLA championship-Katie Horton-Florida State
Katie Horton of Florida State goes all out against UCLA/Andrew Salinero photo
UCLA 3, Florida State 1
1. Nicole McNamara/Megan McNamara (UCLA) vs. Vanessa Freire/Tory Paranagua (FSU), 22-20, 20-14, DNF
2. Sarah Sponcil/Lily Justine (UCLA) def. Katie Horton/Hailey Luke (FSU), 21-18, 21-19
3. Zana Muno/Savvy Simo (UCLA) def. Macy Jerger/Sara Putt (FSU), 21-19, 21-9
4. Molly McBain/Brooke Kuhlman (FSU) def. Elise Zappia/Mac May (UCLA), 21-15, 19-21, 15-12
5. Izzy Carey/Megan Muret (UCLA) def. Madison Fitzpatrick/Francesca Goncalves (FSU), 17-21, 24-22, 15-8
Order of finish: 5, 4, 3, 2

Big West-champion Hawai’i’s season ended 37-5. The SandBows came in seeded third and finished third. Before this tournament, they had won 30 matches in a row since losing to Florida State on March 10.

Hawai’i tied the match 2-2 when the No. 3 pair of Carly Kan and Laurel Weaver won their third set, at which point Hall sprinted to the No. 2 to watch the end, which, as it turned out, was Sponcil and Justine beating Morgan Martin and Lea Monkhouse 21-19, 23-25, 15-11.

“I used to be fast. Probably pulled a hammy,” fourth-year Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall said with a laugh, “but good fun to run to the courts. That’s kind of the fun as a coach in those moments. I was happy to sprint down there to support those girls.”

Hawai’i, which opened with a win over South Carolina on Friday and beat Pepperdine on Saturday before losing to Florida State, loses five seniors, Kan and Weaver, Ka’iwi Schuct, Hannah Zalopany, and Alyssah Fitterer.

“They’re going to be missed,” Hall said. “They’ve been the backbone of this program. It’s going to be hard to replace them. We’ll have to, but I sent them off with aloha and thanked them for all they did for this program.”

Hawai’i is left wanting — the team has been here all three years of the NCAA Championship but has yet to get to the title match — but Hall realized the SandBows had been part of a special few days.

“It’s still one of the neatest NCAA sports there is and even though we’re new, I think we’ve captured the world,” Hall said. “We just hope to keep growing and thanks to ESPN. It’s a really exciting format and five wide is a unique situation for sure. We love it.”

The three-day attendance was 7,530: 2,378 Friday, 2,603 Saturday and 2,541 Sunday. In 2016, the total attendance was 5,915 and last year 6,316.

UCLA 3, Hawai’i 2
1. Megan McNamara/Nicole McNamara (UCLA) def. Emily Maglio/Ka’iwi Schucht (UH), 22-20, 21-18
2. Lily Justine/Sarah Sponcil (UCLA) def. Morgan Martin/Lea Monkhouse (UH), 21-19, 23-25, 15-11
3. Carly Kan/Laurel Weaver (UH) def. Zana Muno/Savvy Simo (UCLA), 21-19, 16-21, 15-12
4. Amy Ozee/Ari Homayun (UH) def. Mac May/Elise Zappia (UCLA), 21-16, 21-16
5. Izzy Carey/Megan Muret (UCLA) def. Paige Dreeuws/Hannah Zalopany (UH), 21-14, 21-12
Order of finish: 4, 5, 1, 3, 2

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