She’s a tremendous player, no doubt, but UCLA’s Sarah Sponcil is quite a source of amusement for her teammates.
“Traveling with her is always a fun time,” teammate Lily Justine said, “We’re always just joking around, telling funny stories, it’s so fun to travel with her and the rest of my teammates, we’re all so close, we’re just one big family, we all get along so well, we all love each other, it’s awesome.”
Justine’s favorite Sponcil-ism:
“We’ve all played a lot of close three-set matches, and in one match she said, ‘Let’s just clench right now.’
“Squeeze the butt, clench. Every time I hear that I just crack up and die, it’s so funny. Honestly, we’re both just goofy people, so anything we say, it’s just a great time.”
No wonder they’re having a great time. Top-ranked UCLA is 25-0 after sweeping Washington on Saturday at Stanford and then beating Cal 4-1. It sets up another battle with No. 2 USC, where one of her beach teammates is a likely opponent, and then Stanford, where one of her beach teammates is an assistant coach.
In the two matches Saturday, Sponcil and Justine battled to a sweep of Washington’s Kara Bajema and Shayne McPherson 22-20, 23-21, and then beat Cal’s Maddie Micheletti and Schafer 21-18, 21-16.
Sponcil, the 22-year-old, 5-foot-10 senior from Phoenix, who started her career at Loyola Marymount (where she was the West Coast Conference player of the year in 2017), made the most of her transfer to Westwood when the Bruins won the 2018 NCAA championship.
Last week, in a victory over USC, she recorded her 100th career victory.
“That’s crazy,” Sponcil said. “I honestly didn’t even know, because I came in last year, so I didn’t even know if that was possible. I had no idea, I’m just here to have fun and play volleyball. It’s a great accomplishment, but I’m just happy that UCLA is playing well and I hope that keeps going.”
At LMU, where Sponcil played in 2015 and then sat out the 2016 season, she won 46 times, playing primarily with Savannah Slattery and Betsi Flint. Last year she played only with Justine and this season has competed with her in all but two matches. This season they’re 2-0 when playing No. 1 and 16-1 at No. 2. Sponcil is also 2-0 at No. 2 with Madi Yeomans.
Sponcil’s trademarks are speedy defense and accurate hand-sets that keep Justine in rhythm.
“I’m getting the best sets in collegiate beach volleyball,” Justine said. “I really love her as a partner. She really brings fire and passion, she’s super strategic and knows where to set me, where to put the ball. She’s awesome. I love her.”
UCLA coach Stein Metzger appreciates Sponcil on and off the sand.
“She’s a great connector. She’s a fun spirit, she’s got a great sense of humor, which you don’t really notice that when she plays,” Metzger said. “She doesn’t really look like somebody with a great sense of humor, she’s just a fierce competitor. But off the court, she’s extremely fun, she’s welcoming, easy to be around, and just helps with our web of connection with our team.”
For most college students, summer can be a time to relax. Not for Sponcil, especially not last summer.
She, finished second in her first AVP main draw in Austin with 2016 Olympian Lauren Fendrick. The pair followed that up with a fifth in San Francisco, and a 17th in Manhattan Beach.
Sponcil also played with USC rival Terese Cannon, with the pair coming out of the qualifier to finish third at the AVP Championships in Chicago. Sponcil and Cannon also finished seventh in the AVP event in Waikiki.
On the international circuit, she took a third place finish at the FIVB three-star in Haiyang, China, with Caitlin Ledoux, and competed in three tournaments with Fendrick, getting fifth in the Tokyo three-star, a ninth in the five-star in Vienna, and a country-quota loss in the four-star in Moscow.
Now Sponcil has united with another USC product, Kelly Claes, for a run towards making the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Which is a far cry from Sponcil’s original plan, trying out for the USA women’s indoor team as a libero.
“After the national championship (last May) I really didn’t have any plans for the summer. I thought I would play some CBVAs, maybe some AVP qualifiers, and maybe try out for the USA indoor team potentially,” Sponcil said.
“Lauren Fendrick called me, we ended up doing really well in Austin, and I feel like without her, none of my summer would have panned out like it did, so I give her all the credit for taking a chance on me.”
Fendrick, a 2016 Olympian with Brooke Sweat, is also an assistant coach for the Stanford beach volleyball team under husband Andrew Fuller. She’s currently on maternity leave.
“I was familiar with watching her play from UCLA, and I thought it would be a fun opportunity to see what she could do at the pro level,” Fendrick said. “She’s clearly talented and athletic, and has a ton of potential, but seeing her at her first tournament in Austin, and even through the end of that summer, she had some huge growth.”
At AVP Austin last year, thanks to Fendrick’s points, they headed straight into the main draw. They lost in the final to April Ross and Alix Klineman 24-22, 25-23.
“I feel like (Austin) was a blur because I was just thrown into this, and I just wanted to be aggressive the whole time, that was my mentality,” Sponcil said. “I probably just hit 95 percent of my balls that I was served, and I was served every time.
“It was surreal … Lauren was helping me out the whole time. It worked out really well together, we had a great time.”
The learning curve was steep.
“Everyone’s more physical, stronger, faster on defense, your shots have to be crisper, but I think the biggest thing is the mental game,” Sponcil said. “All the matches are really close, but it’s like, ‘Can you pass, can you side out, can you pass the perfect ball or a semi-perfect ball to clinch the match?’ All the matches are really close at that level, and it really comes down to the mental game.”
When it came time for the AVP Championships in Chicago, Fendrick wasn’t available. Sponcil decided to take a flyer and message Cannon, despite never having played together.
“We had played all season last year against each other. I didn’t even know her. I was thinking, ‘Maybe she won’t do it because we’re rivals and all that,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ ”
They came out of the qualifier to finish third.
“We played 10 matches in two days. It was nuts. We ended coming out in third place, and we’ve never played with each other. And she’s the nicest person, she would never hurt a fly.”
So much for that UCLA-USC rivalry. Sponcil’s successes attracted a great deal of attention. When Kelly Claes and Brittany Hochevar split, Sponcil got the call from Claes, another USC alum.
Sponcil figured that Claes was watching and planning as teams broke up and new ones were formed.
“Not that I was her last choice, at least I hope I wasn’t her last choice, so she called me and said, ‘We’re both young, we’re both athletic, I think we have a lot of potential.’
“I totally agree with her … We’ll be the youngest athletes to try and make a run at this, and that’s exciting for me. It’s just crazy because I’ve been thrown into this whole new world in the summer, I didn’t have any plans this summer, I’m taking this day by day because it’s so surreal. The more you appreciate what’s going on, right here, my team here, and training with Kelly, I’m just enjoying the moment.”
Sponcil and Claes took third in the FIVB three-star in Qinzhou, China, a ninth in the four-star in Las Vegas, and a second in the four-star in The Hague.
“I’m so excited about my partnership with Sarah,” Claes said. “We’re both young, fiery, and excited to be out on the court in general, and I’m so excited to be on this journey that we’ve started together. It’s going to be great. … There are so many amazing athletes out there, but I was really excited about our potential together, so I picked her.”
As of April 1, Sponcil and Claes are ranked third in Olympic qualification among the Americans with 1,600 points. Ross and Klineman lead the USA with 1,960, followed by Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat with 1,680.
With UCLA beach practices, practices with Claes, plus her UCLA curriculum, Sponcil has a full slate.
“I try to practice as much as I can with Kelly. We try to do two times a week. Stein’s been amazing, allowing me to train with her, so I do half and half. I do three days with UCLA, I’ll do two with Kelly. It’s a lot of craziness, a lot of driving (Sponcil lives and trains with UCLA in Westwood and trains with Claes in Manhattan Beach). I have two separate coaches but both of them have been working together.”
Sponcil has passed on competitions like the FIVB three-star in Sydney in order to be with her Bruin teammates as they gear up for the NCAA Championships May 3-5 with an eye on a repeat.
“I just wanted to be with my team. This is my last season, it’s an amazing group of girls, to be off for a week and a half, our season goes by so quickly. I just wanted to be here, and with the (McNamara) twins too, it’s our senior year, we want to enjoy these last moments.”
Claes and Sponcil are scheduled for a two month FIVB beach road trip beginning with the four-star event in Itapema, Brazil May 15-19.
“I just want to take it day by day,” Sponcil said, “trying to enjoy the moment and not thinking too far ahead.”