Down the beach they went, storming through the white sands of Gulf Shores, Alabama, a dizzying mess of blues and whites and golds and purples. Flags bearing the LSU name and logo could be seen streaming across the cameras of ESPN.

All for naught.

The UCLA beach volleyball team performed the usual antics; they yelled and screamed and clapped until their faces and hands were red. But they knew they could relax, head back to the hotel, put their feet up. There would be more volleyball to play.

The dual between the LSU Tigers and UCLA Bruins had come down — why did it always seem to come down to this? — to court 5, where LSU’s Olivia Ordonez and Kahlee York were deep in the third set against UCLA’s Rileigh Powers and Jaden Whitmarsh.

LSU was up against UCLA’s Ms. Clutch.

“She would be put in these situations where her game was the last dual,” said Devon Newberry, who was Whitmarsh’s partner during the 2022 season. “If we wanted to win, her court had to win. She’s just so calm. She doesn’t freak out or anything. You always feel comfortable knowing it’s her in those matches. It’s like ‘OK, we’re good.’ ”

Newberry felt that herself this past season. UCLA entered the 2022 NCAA Championships as the second-ranked team in the country. Stetson, the Bruins’ first-round opponent, was No. 18, there by virtue of winning the Atlantic Sun tournament. It’s never comfortable, playing those Hatters in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In 2019, they delivered a shocker, stunning top-ranked USC in the first round.

For an hour or so, it appeared as if they’d pull off a similar feat in 2022.

UCLA, powered by Lea Monkhouse and Jessie Smith on court 3 and Lexy Denaburg and Abby Van Winkle on 1, won the first two courts, and then Stetson flipped the script, winning on 5 and 4. In a scene reminiscent of the quarterfinals against LSU in 2021, down the beach everyone charged, to court 2, where Whitmarsh and Newberry were locked in a three-set match with Anete Namike and Carolina Ferraris.

“We got used to it in a weird way, but also: How cool is this? We’re put in this position to win this for our team. We would just look at each other, make eye contact, ‘It’s you and me and everything else is just noise,’” Whitmarsh said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

They blocked out the noise and created plenty of their own when they won, as Whitmarsh always seems to do in those situations, 19-21, 21-16, 15-13.

What’s funny about Whitmarsh, in an endearing sense, is that she never sought out that final-court spotlight. Nor did she ever give that pressure a warm embrace. She dreaded the matter in 2021, her first year making the starting lineup, when she was paired with Powers on court 5.

“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want this to come down to me!’” Whitmarsh said. “I remember them on the loudspeakers: ‘It’s coming down to court 5.’ Rileigh and I looked at each other and said ‘All right, here we go again. It’s time to get down to business.’”

Whitmarsh is now a fifth-year senior helming arguably the most talented team in the country, though she seems much younger. This is mostly due to the fact that when she enrolled at UCLA in 2019, she joined a team so richly talented it’s almost amusing. Canadian twins Nicole and Megan McNamara held down court 1. Sarah Sponcil, a future Olympian, AVP champion, and the 2022 AVP and VolleyballMag.com Defensive Player of the Year, defended on court 2. Zana Muno, who would lead the AVP in digs per set in 2022, was all the way down on 3, and Izzy Carey, the consummate leader who would finish her career as UCLA’s all-time wins leader, was on 5.

Whitmarsh, good as she may have been as a youth in San Diego — First Team All-American, AAU Pan Pacific Champ, All-CIF and All-League — and notable as her genetics are, being the daughter of the late Olympic silver medalist Mike Whitmarsh, couldn’t crack that lineup as a freshman.

“My freshman year is so clear in my mind just because I got there, coming from youth volleyball and thinking I’m the best and really good and whatever, but I get to UCLA and it was such a wake-up call,” Whitmarsh said. “What team am I on? This is crazy! I remember taking a step back and trying to absorb as much as I could from the players I was getting to compete against in practice and also all the advice from the coaching from Stein [Metzger] and Jenny [Johnson Jordan]. It was such a huge year for me. I learned the most that year just from watching.”

Jaden Whitmarsh-UCLA beach volleyball
UCLA’s Jaden Whitmarsh/Stephen Burns photo

She redshirted that season, and then effectively redshirted the next when COVID shortened the year to just three matches. For two years, then, nobody really saw Jaden Whitmarsh play volleyball. When she did, she emerged as an entirely different player.

“She kind of came back and took everyone and blew them away,” Newberry said. “She blew Stein away too. She just turned into a different player than she had been in the last two years.”

Her record since returning from COVID is all the evidence one needs: 29-6 as a junior with Powers, 29-7 as a senior with Newberry. She will not be the on-court leader of this Bruins team. That honor belongs to Lexy Denaburg, a senior who has been on court 1 for the past two years. But Whitmarsh is viewed, as a personality test confirmed, as “The Helper.”

“She has personal relationships with every person. People are never scared to talk to her, and people can get that impression at first because she’s this all-star on the beach, she’s gorgeous, and you can be kind of scared at first,” Newberry said. “But she’s the most welcoming person and everyone on our team has such a unique relationship with her.”

Not that leading this UCLA team should prove to be difficult. The Bruins lost just one player from their 2022 starting lineup, with Lea Monkhouse departing from court 3. They return Denaburg and Abby Van Winkle (court 1), Newberry and Whitmarsh (2), Jessie Smith (3), Marlie Monserez and Powers (4), and Natalie Myszkowski and Sophie Moore (5). All the while, they’ve added transfers Kelli Greene-Agnew (LSU) and Haley Hallgren (USC, Michigan). Lindsey Sparks, a senior who missed last year due to an ACL tear suffered while playing grass volleyball, should be healthy again as well.

“If this is my last year I just want to soak it all in and be grateful for every single game and opportunity that we get,” Whitmarsh said. “I think that it is going to come down to — now that I am an experienced player, making the newcomers feel super welcome and comfortable and making sure everyone is on the same page.

“I have a competitive side and I like to fire everyone up and that comes with energy on the court. We definitely know what we need to do to win and we’ve had our tough losses so using those to fuel the fire and just prepare even more is going to be helpful for sure.”

NCAA beach volleyball selection 5/2/2021-UCLA beach volleyball
UCLA dogpiles onto Rileigh Powers and Jaden Whitmarsh after winning the 2021 Pac-12 championships/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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