Top talent, team togetherness, good humor keys for top-ranked UCLA

UCLA-Stein Metzger-UCLA beach
UCLA head coach Stein Metzger in a post-match chat/Ed Chan,

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LOS ANGELES — Luckily for UCLA, the top-ranked Bruins haven’t had to “lick their wounds” yet this year, because freshmen Abby Van Winkle and Lindsey Sparks think the idea is pretty funny.

No, the defending NCAA beach champions are off to a tremendous start in 2019 with an eye on Saturday’s East Meets West Invitational on Manhattan Beach. The Bruins are currently 10-0, most recently sweeping Pepperdine in straight sets Wednesday at Zuma beach.

VBM 2018 Coach of the year Stein Metzger, who had quite a beach career himself, recently told his team a story about his former partner Mike Lambert.

“He told us that his partner Lambo, whenever he hurt his shoulder, he’d say that he would ‘Lick his wounds.’ That killed my friend Lindsey and I. We were on the ground rolling, and he looked over his shoulder at us, and started licking his shoulder, and making a cat noise, it was the funniest thing ever.”

This year’s UCLA team is a curious mix, with five seniors and a strong class of six freshmen.

“Culture-wise, this is a really close-knit team,” Metzger said. “Most of it is organic.

“We’ve been lucky with a lot of character and great personalities on our team, and we get along really well. They’re extremely supportive, and I think players feel same in this environment, and so the learning happens at a really quick rate.

“We have five seniors that are playing volleyball at a really high level. They’re very interested in the legacy of making this freshman class great. In a lot of our drills, our seniors are playing with our freshmen, mixing with them as partners, and also across the net. That’s only making our entire squad better.”

Van Winkle agrees.

“We call each other the ‘Band of Sisters.’  We feel like we have this close-knit  very comfortable relationship with each other, and we can trust each other with anything, so I think that’s really important on the court to have trust.”

It doesn’t hurt that UCLA is so good. It returned nine of ten starters from its title team that finished 40-4. The rosters oozes top-level talent, including the Canadian McNamara twins — Nicole and Megan — at No. 1 and now FIVB-seasoned Sarah Sponcil, a senior, and partner Lily Justine, a junior, at No. 2.

Van Winkle, a 6-foot-2 freshman from nearby San Clemente, is the new starter, paired at No. 3 with junior Zana Muno.

Van Winkle came in highly touted and hasn’t disappointed in the early going.

“She’s just a special kid,” Metzger said.” You don’t find kids that are 6 foot 2, with great ball control, great volleyball IQ, and can snap both sides of the ball from a high point at such an early age. We think really highly of her, we think she’s going to do great things, she’s going to learn a ton playing with someone like Zana Muno.”

Metzger, a UCLA athletics hall of famer who won three NCAA championships indoors for the Bruins, is in his seventh season as the beach coach. He was last season’s AVCA national coach of the year. He and Dax Holdren took fifth on the beach at the 2004 Olympic and his pro career included 16 AVP victories and career earnings of $934,268.

“It’s awesome,” Nicole McNamara said of being coached by the affable Metzger. “Never a dull moment.

“He’s great, he keeps things light, he’s goofy, he always has fun stories to share. It’s been great, because he played on tour for years, and we get to hear his experiences and learn from that. He really pushes all of us, and we’re lucky to have him.”

Assistant coach Jenny Johnson Jordan, also a Bruin alum, placed fifth in the 2000 Olympics. Her pro career included 10 domestic wins and total prize money of $849,607.

“Jenny is really the glue of this team.” Metzger said. “She’s the one that they go to when they’ve got stuff going on in their lives outside of volleyball. She’s the rock, she’s the steady one, she’s the one, that at the end of the day, helps me make the tough decisions. Without her, this is a totally different team.”

AVP and FIVB stalwart Irene Pollock joined the team as a volunteer assistant just before the season.

“The way Jenny and Stein run this program, there’s no question why they’re at the top of the NCAA. They hold these girls up to such a high standard, and if they see a slip, just one notch, they push them right back up there.”

Megan McNamara-UCLA-UCLA beach
Megan McNamara displays her defefnsive skills/Ed Chan,

The McNamaras, who are from Vancouver, British Columbia, may only be 5-9 and lack the vertical reach of many of the bigs in college beach volleyball, but make it up with jump serves and sterling ball control.

“They’ve really come into their own in terms of maturity and being leaders both on and off the court,” Metzger said.” They’ve got total buy-in on what it means to be a Bruin, even coming from another country. They just seem like they’re full of gratitude, they are playing extremely well with each other, better than I’ve ever seen, they’ve worked a lot on their sister dynamics in terms of just being kind to each other, that’s not always easy with a sibling. They’ve worked really hard on that and they’re serving great, which is big for them when you consider that they’re smaller in stature.”

The McNamaras, who won the FISU World University Games in Munich, made strides on the world tour this summer, finishing fourth in the FIVB three-star in Chetumal, Mexico, losing to Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat 21-16, 8-21, 10-15.

Van Winkle said she picks up a few things every time she watches the McNamaras play.

“The twins, they’re just amazing to watch. They way they flow, and their chemistry is so good together. I learn so much from watching them.”

Sponcil competes internationally with former USC star Kelly Claes, and figures to be a factor in Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification. She’s 5-10 and many consider her the best overall athlete in the sport. Sponcil finished second in her first AVP main draw event with Lauren Fendrick, earning her Rookie of the Year honors.

“She’s a great connector,” Metzger said. “She’s a fun spirit, she’s got a great sense of humor. You don’t really notice that when she plays — 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. She’s a bit of a prankster, I think that’s why Jenny Johnson Jordan and she get along so well, it’s because they’re both pranksters.”

This year the biggest lineup change is the separation of senior Muno and junior Savvy Simo. Simo is at No. 4 with 6-3 sophomore Mac May.

“The big difference that we started with is splitting up Zana and Savvy. We did that because they’re both amazing at defense and then on top of that transitioning and putting that ball away,” Metzger said. “When we have them together we’re splitting half their time. If we can put them with blockers we can have them playing defense full time and transitioning every ball that can only help. That’s what different about us this year, and we’re fortunate that we’re deep enough to have that option.”

The Bruins added depth with an impressive freshman class that also includes Sparks, Jaden Whitmarsh, Piper Monk-Heidrich, Hawley Harrer, and Maggie Walters.

None, so far, are licking any wounds. UCLA is looking at a power-packed weekend, playing, in order No. 6 LSU and No. 9 FIU on Saturday and No. 4 Florida State and No. 19 TCU on Sunday.


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