You could see the shift, right there in Jodi and Dennis Newberry’s backyard. While the rest of the world idled in their homes during the summer of 2020, there was their youngest, Devon, setting to herself, filling her quarantine days of the pandemic with the unnoticed, microscopic reps that are often a recipe for greatness. Ingredients she had never before considered.

All her life, she had played beach volleyball, and all her life, she was an exceptional talent. From 2014-2018, she had been a member of the top junior USA Volleyball team. In the summer of 2018, at just 17 years old, she qualified for both the AVP Hermosa and Manhattan Beach Opens with childhood friend Lindsey Sparks, becoming the first U-18 team to make main draws in both events in a single summer. A year later, she’d travel to Mexico and claim fourth in a professional tournament representing the United States of America, taking pictures and signing autographs 20 minutes after her matches were over.

And yet, in spite of all that success, Newberry “never really understood you really have to put in the work to get results,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was getting off so easy. I’m a tall, lanky girl, and I got off a lot.”

Throughout her entire true freshman year at UCLA, Newberry was a riddle to coach Stein Metzger, to the point that he even asked his captain, Savvy Simo, what he had to do to get his precocious freshman blocker to engage a little.

“I’d say ‘I’m trying!’ and he’d tell me that I need to try harder,” Newberry said. “It was a constant battle and I never understood it.”

“Stein would get so frustrated,” said Simo, the team’s court one defender during Newberry’s COVID-altered season as well as her full freshman season in 2021. “He saw more in her than she saw in herself. He would call me and say ‘What’s going on with Devon?’ I’d say ‘Bro I don’t know!’”

In truth, there was little Metzger could have done or said that would have made a difference. Some lessons are meant to be felt, not heard. Some lessons are best delivered by opposing teams than their own well-meaning head coaches. And on March 11, 2020, Pepperdine and USC hammered it into Newberry that coasting on natural talent and childhood reps was no longer enough. She failed to win a set that day, which also happened to be the final day of the pandemic-shortened season, leaving Newberry to stew over those consecutive losses for a year.

“I’d never seen myself play so bad either,” Newberry said. “I did not know what was going on. I didn’t feel invested in the college volleyball life, I didn’t feel like I was in it. For that to be the only memory from my freshman year, the lasting one, that really fired me up. I was like ‘I’m not letting that happen again.’ And you get your whole life stripped away for months and you don’t know when it’s going to end, and all I thought about was how many times I didn’t go my hardest and how many times I let games slip away from me because you never know when it’s back and never know when it’s going to be gone.”

Soon, she was taking to her backyard, setting, setting, setting, getting any rep she could on her own. Long hesitant to watch film from losses, she began digging into them, extracting valuable lessons from each. She hopped on a Zoom meeting with Metzger and assistant coach Jenny Johnson Jordan and made them a promise: “I’m going to work so hard this summer, and I’m going to come back and get on my stuff.”

“I spent that whole quarantine in my backyard setting to myself or working out every day,” she said. “I came back and felt such a switch for myself — every ball matters to me, everything I hear from the coaches I’m taking a mental note of it and I’m going to think about it and video is huge.”

It haunts her now, how good she could be had she shifted her mindset when she was in high school. Such are the pains of maturity.

“If I could go back four years ago, five years ago and have the same mindset now, I can only imagine where I’d be,” she said.

Still: Look at her now.

In 2021, the 21-year-old Newberry won 24 matches and lost only eight, enjoying success with whomever Metzger put her. Could have been Sparks on court two, Cami Sanchez on three, or, in the end, Lea Monkhouse on two. She helped seal UCLA’s Pac-12 Championship with a win over USC’s Julia Scoles and Sammy Slater, winning 15-21, 21-12, 15-13, providing the glimmer of hope the Bruins needed to win a third straight NCAA Championship.

“After Pac-12’s, [Metzger] came up to me and he was crying, and he gave me a little speech and he noticed it,” Newberry said. “Then it just clicked for me that I did make a huge shift that every ball means something to me, every practice means something.”

“You could literally see the difference — pushing in the weight room, taking a more vocal role on the team, completely balling out,” Simo said. “She was always so good, but she took the next step, and you could see it this summer, when she should have been beating me [on the AVP Tour]. It’s really cool to see.”

Now Newberry finds herself in the role once filled by Simo. Still just a sophomore in terms of eligibility, Newberry, alongside Lexy Denaburg and Rileigh Powers, is indisputably a leader of a young and talented UCLA team.

“I’m the older one now, which is so weird to me,” Newberry said. “We’ve done two years now and I’m listening to people like Savvy and I didn’t need to lead because we have so many good leaders. But we lost a ton and we have a lot of young players, huge players for us, and we have Lexy and Rileigh and they’re taking the leadership and that’s a big switch for us, new people taking leadership.”

UCLA may be in a state of transition, but the Bruins are still a clear top team in the NCAA, one of the few who can expect to contend with USC and its fully reloaded roster. There is the aforementioned trio of sophomore leaders, “twin towers” Abby and Tessa Van Winkle, returning starters Monkhouse and Jaden Whitmarsh, as well as additions in Pani Napolean, Marlie Monserez, and five incoming freshmen All-Americans in Jessie Smith, Katie Hashman, Madeline Bonanni, Sophie Moore, and Natalie Myszkowski.

“In this preseason, Lexy and I were talking, and we didn’t know what this year would look like,” Newberry said. “We didn’t know how strong we were going to be, we were a little worried about it and really had to trust the process because we were working on a ton of technical stuff and it’s hard to see a result from that right away. But I was at practice this morning, and I was looking at everyone, and we were doing a serve and pass drill and I’m blown away. The difference between pre-season and now, and even in lifting, everyone is pushing themselves. Now I’m guns a blazing. We’re ready.”

More NCAA Beach Volleyball content:
Hailey Harward, and the constant search to find and bring joy to the beach
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