HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It’s the dichotomy that gets you.
Lexy Denaburg paints a striking picture. A tanned 6-foot frame is outlined by lean, rippling muscle. She plays beach volleyball with power that is decidedly uncommon, to the point that the most-oft used descriptor of her game is “beast.” That is, in fact, the first word Savvy Simo used when introducing Denaburg on SANDCAST, and it is meant as the highest form of athletic compliment. She’s physical and athletic enough to win at the NCAA and AVP level as both a blocker and defender. She is at once a coach’s dream and confounding puzzle piece, because when you have a piece that can fit anywhere you put it… where in the world do you put it?
Court 1 is the short answer.
That’s where Denaburg has played for UCLA the previous two seasons, piling up 58 wins and just 19 losses. She won as both a blocker, for Lea Monkhouse, and a defender, for Abby Van Winkle. Last March, she was responsible for the only loss handed to Tina Graudina and Hailey Harward, a pair who would go on to win an AVP later that summer.
But then you listen to her speak, and you see the grace and humility with which she carries herself, and you realize that you’ve got it all wrong. Microphones have to be turned up to capture her soft-spoken thoughts. Once so wracked with nerves before a match against TCU in the NCAA Championships, she nearly began to cry. Off the court, she is goofy, so much so that when Kelli Greene-Agnew, a transfer from LSU who had watched Denaburg’s rise as a Bruin, could hardly believe it.
“She goes up to me and says ‘Oh my gosh, you’re like a 5-year-old,’ ” Denaburg recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. And again, it’s important to note that Greene-Agnew meant that as a supreme compliment. For here is a 21-year-old whose only vice is that she tends to lift too many weights, making her vulnerable to overuse injuries, with the physique to suggest it, and yet she is as playful and lovely as a child.
“It’s bounce a ball, scream in my face, and then she goes ‘Oh hey, I miss you!’ ” Savvy Simo said with a laugh.
It’s endearing, that dichotomy, one that has her as the face of this 2023 UCLA team.
They were partners once, Simo and Denaburg. Both in the weight room and on the court. Went 28-8 on court one and finished the season as First-Team All-Americans. And it is Simo, the leader of that 2021 team, as the lone senior, who made one of the largest impacts on Denaburg. She was just a pup when she played with Simo, one of three freshmen in a highly touted freshman class that also included Rileigh Powers and Devon Newberry. On their first trip as a team, in Europe, Denaburg, Powers, and Newberry made a vow not to say a word. They’d simply hang back, listen, learn, and maybe eat a croissant or two.
For two years, learn they did, primarily from Simo and Megan Muret, a pair of winners who established what it meant to be a part of a winning culture.
“They set the example for everything. Stein [Metzger] and Jenny [Johnson Jordan] do a pretty good job of that, just talking about the team culture and how important that is,” Denaburg said. “Savvy pushed me more than anyone. I would see her doing pull-ups with no bands on and I would say ‘Oh my gosh, I have to be able to do that one day.’ Those small things, her work ethic, and everything she left behind. Not just her, but all of the seniors who do everything. I remember Megan Muret, Stein would just say ‘That’s textbook.’ They’d do everything the right way.
“I’m a visual learner. I learn by seeing people and seeing things, and I feel like what they did is insane for how I view it now. Without that, I wouldn’t know how the team works and how the team culture is. Savvy’s pep talks before games, I miss them so much. Stuff like that, I still remember like it was yesterday. The freshmen who are there now, they won’t know what that was like because they weren’t there for it.”
Those freshmen — Macey Butler, Maggie Boyd, Jayla Shanks, Kenzie Brower, Ky Vaickus, Ensley Alden — and a host of graduate transfers will have to settle for the next best thing then: Lexy Denaburg. It’s still difficult for her to believe that she’s a senior. Her COVID-shortened true freshman season put a strange time warp on her college career. For so long, this UCLA team has been characterized by its youth. Now that youth is all grown up, with Newberry, Powers, Denaburg, Jaden Whitmarsh, Van Winkle, and Marlie Monserez all seniors or graduate students. All of them will have their roles, but it is Denaburg, the visual learner, who will set the visual example of what a winner looks like, both on and off the court.
“That girl works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Whitmarsh said. “Playing on the ones since her freshman year. In everything she does she puts in 110 percent. She’s the best leader, inspires everyone, and her energy is contagious.”
Sometimes her work ethic, and her indefatigable energy to do moremoremore, always more is, ironically, her only visible flaw. Of all the vices available to college students, hammering weights is likely the best of them, but still: That habit has turned Lexy Denaburg into one of the only players in all of NCAA beach volleyball who can consistently beat down Lexy Denaburg.
“Taking care of my body has been a huge one,” she said. “When I was a freshman I just wanted to destroy my body in the weight room. I always wanted to lift. When I had a bad practice I would take it out in the weight room. That’s where I got my comfort from. It’s a good thing but it can be a bad thing when I do it way too much.
“I feel like when I was a freshman, I really only cared about winning, and I still do, but I’ve changed in a way where I don’t have to be perfect all the time. I think that’s where I’ve struggled the most is if I don’t win, then my day was ruined. It’s taken me growing up to realize that I’m not going to win every single game I play in, and winning doesn’t mean the whole world in the grand scheme of life. That’s been one of the biggest things.”
The schedule for the 2023 season is not yet available to the public, although it will begin sometime in late February. When it does, UCLA will begin at the top, assured of being on the receiving end of every team’s best efforts. Just how Denaburg likes it.
“When you’re at the top, you’re going to be better because you’re going to be getting everyone’s best game,” she said. “Everyone wants to beat you, everyone’s going to be doing everything they can to beat you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be getting their best game which is going to make you better, and it all starts in practice.”
It starts with an example to follow.
In Denaburg, this soft-spoken “beast” of a “5-year-old,” there is none better.