In conversations spanning the NCAA beach volleyball country this preseason, the general consensus was that USC was perhaps the most talented group ever assembled. Audrey and Nicole Nourse, the Trojans’ court 4, for goodness sakes, have competed in AVP main draws, and Tina Graudina was in the Olympics.
One coach even likened taking a single court off USC as an overall win.
And then, this weekend, UCLA took three — and the match.
There was no question or debate that the Bruins would be the Team of the Week, and Stein Metzger has invented his own category of NCAA Coaching Wizard of the Week. Two weeks into the season, UCLA is 9-0, with victories over preseason top-10 teams in Stanford, USC, Grand Canyon, and Cal Poly. This past weekend alone, the Bruins strung together victories over USC, Long Beach State, and GCU and Poly — all with a new-look lineup that saw Lexy Denaburg playing full-time defense for the first time in her young career.
How did Denaburg, the 6-foot sophomore from Merritt Island, Florida, handle the move? Winning all four matches alongside Abby Van Winkle, topping USC’s Graudina and Hailey Harward 21-17, 21-17, Long Beach State’s Skyler German and Alica Pratesi 21-13, 21-18, GCU’s Jess Vastine and Anaya Evans 21-15, 21-16, and Cal Poly’s Tia Miric and Ella Connor 21-17, 21-19.
Eight sets up, eight sets down — in a position Denaburg had never played before, aside from a few weeks at a USA Volleyball Collegiate Camp last summer. Freshmen Sophie Moore and Natalie Myszkowski, too, shined, winning all four of their matches to extend their 2022 record to 9-0 on court four.
The scariest bit for the rest of the NCAA teams is just how young these Bruins are. Of the 10 players who started in their win over USC, only Lea Monkhouse and Florida graduate-transfer Marlie Monserez are so-called seniors. The rest have at least two more years of eligibility, and several have three.
This week, UCLA will be the new No. 1-ranked team in the country, a position the Bruins could find themselves in frequently in the years to come.
Team of the Week: UCLA’s Denaburg, Van Winkle
There are half a dozen teams who could have been named Team of the Week and it would have made sense. But it’s difficult to put into words just how incredible it is that Denaburg was able to make the transition from a blocker to a defender in a matter of a week. In the past two years, she’s blocked for Lindsey Sparks and Savvy Simo, going 38-11 at the net. With Rileigh Powers to begin 2022, she won four of five, losing a tight match to Hawai’i’s Brooke Van Sickle and Kaylee Glagau, 21-19, 15-21, 15-13.
Now she’s undefeated as a defender, against four talented pairs, alongside the 6-foot-2 junior Van Winkle, who is a serial winner herself.
“Obviously we know how good of a blocker she is,” said Simo, who played with Denaburg for a full season during 2021 on court one. “She proved that with me last season and with Maria [Clara Salgado, now the UCLA volunteer assistant] in the AVPs, but to see her be so successful at the highest level against the best teams and playing defense shows how incredible of an athlete she really is. Not only is she naturally gifted, she works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Runner up: Holly Carlton, Reilly Alred, LSU: Sunday, they beat Selina Marolf and Abbey Thorup of Loyola Marymount on Court 3 18-21, 23-21, 16-14
Most Noteworthy Result: No. 5 TCU beats No. 3 FSU
Before last weekend, TCU had never beaten Florida State in 12 tries.
Before last weekend, TCU had never beaten a team ranked as high as Florida State, who entered No. 3, behind only USC and UCLA.
At first, it appeared as if that streak would continue. TCU dropped both courts 1 and 2, as Florida State’s Maddie Anderson and Brook Bauer, and Alaina Chacon and Madison Fitzpatrick, won in straight sets.
But it’s the depth in Fort Worth that is going to make the Frogs so dangerous this year. And it was the depth that prevailed, as Hailey Hamlett and Alexis Filippone won on 3, Maria Gonzalez and Ana Vergara on 4, and Megan Muret and Rochelle Scott on5.
“That means that we’re in the right direction and it means that we have the team to do it,” coach Hector Gutierrez said. “We’re not going to slow down. The girls believe we can do it and that’s one of the wins we needed to prove that we can do it. We’re going to face FSU and other good schools on the road and you just have to go for it.
“This is how the sport is. You’re going to win and you’re going to lose and now we know we’re going to win a lot. That confidence, we didn’t have it in years past, but now we have it. The girls are doing a terrific job. They’re super competitive and we fight until the end. That’s our culture right now: We’re fighters, and if someone wants to take it, they’ll have to fight harder than us.”
Biggest storylines of the weekend
No. 10 LSU upsets No. 4 LMU
There’s a chance, LSU coach Russell Brock figured, that the players on Loyola Marymount’s team knew his Tigers better than they did coming into this weekend.
“They don’t even have a clue, and we were still able to perform in a way that gave us a great chance to win,” Brock said after his Tigers upset the fourth-ranked Lions, 3-2, in Baton Rouge.
Writer’s confessional note: Before we go further, I’d like the record to show that I initially had LSU ranked 14 in the preseason rankings, and it is my hope that they printed it out and used it as darts or something useful, because those preseason rankings could not be more wrong and worthless. Well done, Tigers.
What’s most impressive is that the match came down to a court 3 battle between LSU’s Holly Carlton and Reilly Allred and LMU’s Selina Marolf and Abbey Thorup. LMU had taken the first set, and pushed out to a 12-9 lead in the third. This is the point where experience typically pays dividends, and experience is something of which the Tigers are in a terribly short supply. Yet Carlton and Allred, for the second time that weekend, prevailed, winning 16-14 to seal the dual, just as they did against Georgia State.
“I believe we’re ahead of our timeline, which you hope to be but you have to be realistic about people who have never played this sport before or who have never been in this competition before,” said Brock, who returned just two starters from his 2021 team. “We’ve got kids who have trained with us for years but they don’t have any real game testing. That’s where you really find out what’s going to stick and what’s going to go out the window.”
No. 6 GCU impresses against No. 13 Poly, No. 7 Stanford
Grand Canyon very nearly put an end to UCLA’s celebratory weekend. The Lopes pushed the Bruins to 3-2, with court 4 going into a third set. It would be freshmen Bruins Natalie Myszkowski and Sophie Moore who would prevail over Abbie Hughes and Maddie Relaz, 23-25, 21-19, 15-11 on court 4, but the message was clear: GCU can compete with the best. The day before, GCU beat No. 7 Stanford, 3-2, while Dana Roskic and Cami Sanchez won on court 5 against USC.
The Lopes finished the weekend with a 3-2 win over No. 13 Cal Poly and are now 5-2, their only two losses coming to UCLA and USC, the top two teams in the country. Just as USC won’t be No. 1 for long, the Lopes won’t be stuck in sixth, either.
Concordia’s Phair and Bernzen steal an upset
On a gusty day in Irvine, California, in a tri-match between Concordia, Cal State LA, and Pepperdine that was not supposed to provide much of note, Concordia’s Hannah Phair and Vanessa Bernzen delivered something of note.
On court 1, with winds blowing regularly 20 miles per hour and gusts up to 40, Phair and Bernzen upset Pepperdine’s top duo of Melanie Paul and Madison Shields, 17-21, 21-16, 15-10.
On the surface, this would seem to be a wild upset, and in many ways, it is. But Phair competed for four years at UCLA and transferred to Concordia to get her masters in healthcare administration. Bernzen is a 6-foot blocker who will match up well with undersized teams.
Both teams are now 7-1.
In case you missed it, Stephen Burns shot the Cactus Classic at Arizona featuring Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Colorado Mesa, Hawai’i, and Santa Clara. Click here for his favorite photos from the weekend, like the one below.
This week in NCAA Beach Volleyball
Thursday-Saturday: Outrigger Queen’s Cup, Hawai’i
UC Davis, TCU, Nebraska, Cal, and Hawai’i meet on O’ahu for an enviable spring break competition.
Friday-Saturday: South Carolina Challenge
Pepperdine will get its first real test of the season in the South Carolina Challenge, which features LSU, South Carolina, LSU, Mercer, and Louisiana Monroe.
Saturday-Sunday: Stetson Sun-N-Sand Invitational
Florida State vs. USC. Get your popcorn ready! Also, Small School powerhouse Tampa will get additional cracks at solid Division I schools, as Florida Atlantic and Stetson are also competing in the Sun-N-Sand.
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