NCAA beach countdown: No. 1 UCLA “could do something special this year”

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UCLA beach volleyball 2/19/2020-Lea Monkhouse
UCLA's Lea Monkhouse extends for a dig/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Had you asked Stein Metzger in, say, September, about where he thought his current UCLA team would be one day prior to the onset of the 2020 beach volleyball season, he’d have admitted that “This is going to take a little while. Let’s be patient. We’re not going to be that good. We’re not going to be that crisp.”

He’s an optimist, Metzger, but also a realist. He knew what he lost from last year’s NCAA national-championship team, the second straight title won by the Bruins. He graduated his No. 1 duo in Nicole and Megan McNamara. Sarah Sponcil moved on from No. 2 into the thick of a tight Olympic race. Zana Muno skipped from No. 3 into an AVP semifinal. Izzy Carey left court five as the program’s winningest player of all time and will soon be solving the world’s problems.

The 2020 team is without, as Metzger described it, the “meat and potatoes” that had led the Bruins to two straight titles, supplanting USC as most dominant program on the beach. Where last year’s team was anchored by experienced seniors, this edition will feature an abundance of youth. Expectations for where they’d be in February were understandably modest.

And then practice began, and “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at our ability to do some pretty cool stuff,” Metzger said. “It’s been enjoyable.”

It’s why he doesn’t feel any pressure of a three-peat. In fact, he sees it as a fun opportunity.

“I think it’s exciting,” he said. “I think last year we had more pressure because you look at the recruiting board and everything was just coming to a head in that moment. That was our team coming to maturity with Zana, Sarah, the twins, and Izzy all being seniors at the same time. That felt like a lot of pressure.

“This year felt like kind of a rebuilding year but once you start seeing the pieces come together it’s ‘Wow, we could do something special this year.’ I think the team is doing a good job knowing it’s a new team, a new year, we haven’t done anything yet. We’re just excited to get going.”

What’s special about UCLA is that this year’s team, while vastly different, is actually quite comparable to the 2019 national champions. It will not be as top-heavy, with the McNamaras, Sponcil and Lily Justine holding down courts one and two. But across the board? There is no dearth of talent there.

Justine, a two-time All-American from Chico, California, returns for her senior season with a 77-27 record. Savvy Simo, the senior from Rancho Santa Fe, California, also made huge beach strides over the offseason, according to Metzger, especially after moving to outside hitter from libero for a rejuvenated UCLA indoor team.

Abby Van Winkle, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from San Clemente who was Muno’s partner at No. 3 in 2019, is expected to move up in the ranks. Sophomore Lindsey Sparks, from Huntington Beach, worked her way onto court five with Carey to close the 2019 season and “is just totally gifted,” Metzger said. “Her ability to assess and see what’s going on on the court and execute is just next-level stuff.”

Lea Monkhouse, a 6-foot junior Canadian transfer from Hawai’i, has settled into the culture in Westwood after her debut season.

And then there’s the youth, which is a bit of a misnomer. Though freshmen Devon Newberry (Santa Monica), Lexy Denaburg (Merritt Island, Florida), and Rileigh Powers (Ovidedo, Florida) are all, indeed, freshmen, “all three are the cat’s meow,” Metzger said. “They’re really good. They’re stepping up and stepping in right away. Certainly they’re going to be exciting to watch.”

Newberry has already competed at the professional level, making two AVP main draws as a high schooler with Sparks and finishing fourth at a NORCECA in La Paz, Mexico, with incoming recruit Peri Brennan. Denaburg was named the Florida Today Athlete of the Year in 2019 and won state championships in both soccer and volleyball. Powers won gold medals at the 2018 USA Volleyball National Championships and 2016 AAU National Beach Championships and an AAU indoors gold in 2014.

“We’re pretty lucky with talent,” Metzger said. “We still get these great athletes and they get good fast and next thing you know they’re all doing the same things in practice and drills and they’re all acquiring the same skills because they’re learning from each other.

“It’s probably been a couple years since we’ve struggled to run drills. The stuff that they’re doing and capable of running is pretty darn good right now. I’m pretty happy with where we’re at the moment. I know we’ve got to get 20 percent better because everyone else will.”

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