On the evening of January 14, UCLA women’s volleyball coach Mike Sealy had the mic. As he expounded on the tremendous careers of his seniors, of which there were just two — setter Cali Thompson and outside hitter Savvy Simo — he turned to Simo and, rather than gushing about her laundry list of accomplishments, said a joke.

“You’re one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached,” he said.

Simo and her parents must be joking. Her? One of Sealy’s favorites? Over the past four years, she had been, by her own admission, a “pain in the butt,” something her beach coach, Stein Metzger, will readily, if not warmly, agree to. She questions. Challenges. Not in impolite or insubordinate ways. Just an effort to make sure what’s being done is in the best interest of the team. That can grind on even the best of coaches.

But Sealy didn’t laugh. Didn’t betray a single sign of amusement. He meant every word, and afterwards, he’d hug Simo and tell her that she’s the best, and to keep in touch.

That will now be easier to do than Sealy could have known.

Savvy Simo’s coming back to UCLA for one more year.

When the NCAA initially granted an extra year of eligibility for all spring athletes who had their 2020 seasons cut short, Simo had no immediate designs on returning to Westwood. She’d done her four years, playing both beach and indoor. She’d won two NCAA Championships on the beach, piled up 91 wins, completed her sociology major.

She was ready to move on.

“When I found out everything was cancelled I was like ‘Screw it, I’m not coming back, I’m over college, I’ve had my time, I already feel old, I want to play AVP, I want to do interviews, I want to move on,’” said Simo, who went 13-2 on court one with Abby Van Winkle in the truncated 2020 season.

Already, she had plans to move to the South Bay to room with LMU transfer Iya Lindahl. She was going to play on the AVP Tour, launch what is already a promising career in sports media. Move on with her life. As the reaction to Covid-19 spread, and the economy was shuttered and sports, including the AVP, were postponed indefinitely, if not altogether cancelled, reservation began to take root.

With no AVP to play at the moment, few if any jobs readily available, many of her rivals — Kristen Nuss and Claire Coppola at LSU, for instance — returning to school, her prospective roommate, Lindahl, remaining in college, was there any real reason to move on?

It was a picture painted by Rachel Morris, Simo’s old coach at WAVE Volleyball in San Diego, that ultimately convinced her.

“Look, Savvy,” Morris, a former setter for Oregon, told her, “next May, you’re going to be sitting on your couch watching your team compete for a national championship and, win or lose, you’re going to regret not being there.”

“That,” Simo said, “was the tipping point for me. I was like ‘You’re so right, I cannot imagine watching this team play, knowing I could have had an opportunity.’”

She called Metzger. She wanted to come back.

It’s simple enough in concept, but not in execution. There was the academic side of things to work out, since an athlete cannot simply return with no classes on the schedule, only to play beach volleyball for a few months in the spring semester (Simo has picked up a minor). There is still the thorny scholarship issue as well, something that schools around the country are dealing with. But there was zero chance Metzger would let that interfere with Simo returning. He’d make it work, because if there’s one thing UCLA could use most on its young and talented team, it’s the Bruins’ phenomenal pain in the butt leader.

“I friggin love Stein, I love Jenny (Johnson Jordan), I think they’re both incredible humans,” Simo said. “Literally yesterday, I said ‘I’m sorry for being such a pain’ and he said ‘You really are a total pain but I love you kid.’ I’m so excited to come back.”

The Bruins will be equally excited to have Simo back as well. Simo’s fellow seniors, Lily Justine and Madi Yeomans, are moving on, making Simo, already the vocal leader of the bunch, the de facto captain of a team that featured underclassmen in 50 percent of its starting lineup: Van Winkle (sophomore), Lindsey Sparks (sophomore), Lexy Denaburg (freshman), Devon Newberry (freshman), Rileigh Powers (freshman).

“I took on the leadership role with the other seniors and it was a challenge but I just kinda took it and ran with it and no program is ever perfect but we were on the ups and it was a bummer it was cancelled but thankfully I’m back and I’m fired up to see the potential this team has,” Simo said. “Me and Stein, we have a really great relationship and I think a reason why we kinda go back and forth is because I do have a really high level of respect for Stein. I listen to everything he says and he is one of the best coaches I’ve had on the beach and he is so smart and I think especially this year, I wanted to win so bad and I know he did too.

“I’ve learned and matured and figured out when to pick my battles and when to not. Even this year, there were times where I was like ‘Stein we need to be doing more of this’ and agree or disagree, I think we both have a common goal and we want to win. He has so much experience but I also have the side of the players and the team and we worked out a balance to find out what’s best. Jenny also plays an incredible role in that balance as a female figure too. People like Sarah (Sponcil) and people like Zana (Muno) were the same: We all just want to win. And that’s an incredible part of UCLA’s culture and I hope it carries out.”

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