After winning back-to-back NCAA titles with a great senior class, UCLA has new beach challenge

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p1440 Collegiate Challenge 11/23/2019-Rileigh Powers
UCLA's Rileigh Powers digs a shot/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

UCLA beach volleyball coach Stein Metzger reflected on winning back-to-back NCAA beach volleyball championships.

“Number one, it’s harder to do it the second time than the first time,” Metzger said. “And that has certainly felt true. I think it showed that it wasn’t just a fluke.”

In 2018, UCLA finally took the title from USC. Then last year, the Bruins went 35-3, including winning 3-0 an incredible 25 times. The heart of their team was a spectacular senior class, led by Megan and Nicole McNamara, Sarah Sponcil, Zana Muno, and Izzy Carey.

And they’re having success at the next level. The McNamara twins are competing on the FIVB circuit, with a fourth-place finish at the Chetumal three-star. Sponcil partnered with USC product Kelly Claes and they’re in the thick of the Olympic qualification race. Muno turned heads this past AVP season, finishing third at AVP Hermosa Beach with Cal Poly’s Crissy Jones, earning VolleyballMag.com Breakthrough and Rookie of the Year honors. Carey was a force for the Bruins, going 36-2 in the No. 5 pairing.

“Repeating really was a testament to that senior class,” said the 47-year-old Metzger, a 2004 Olympian who placed fifth in Athens.

“They did it as juniors. We really knew we were going to have a great opportunity when they were seniors, but they even did it a year early. And it may be awhile before we see another senior class like that on any squad. You see Sarah already having a huge impact. The twins are doing well, Zana is doing great, and Izzy was our winningest player ever in the history of UCLA beach volleyball itself.

“I hope that we’ll see that senior class again at some point, but it may take a little while. Certainly we have some groups on our team right now who aspire to be like that and they’re putting in the work right now. So we’ll see.”

With five starting spots opening up, the competition for those spots will be fierce.

“We do have a lot of talented players that have been waiting in the wings, and waiting for their opportunity to play,” Metzger said.

Last year the Bruins brought in a loaded recruiting class, with seven freshmen: Jaden Whitmarsh, Piper Monk-Heidrich, Abby Van Winkle, Lindsey Sparks, Hawley Harrer, and Maggie Walters. 

With UCLA’s depth, only Van Winkle and Sparks found their way into the starting lineup, with Van Winkle finishing at 29-5 at the No. 3 pair, while Sparks ran up a 33-2 record at the No. 5 pair.

“Abby and Lindsey, who broke into the starting lineup, obviously are going to be really important for us this year,” Metzger said. “Piper Monk-Heidrich and Jaden Whitmarsh certainly have been waiting and had a lot of success at the high school level and are very hungry and want to make the starting squad and compete and contribute on the court this year, and they’re doing well.

“And Maggie Walters, from Santa Cruz, is probably one of our most improved players from last year. So she’s doing a lot of great things. It is a really strong class and I expect great things out of them and I think it’s going to be fun to watch them as they progress.”

2000 Olympian and assistant coach Jenny Johnson Jordan believes that last year’s freshmen will build on their national championship experience.

“There are obviously a lot of opportunities to play right now in terms of spots being available, which only creates more competition,” Jordan said. “So that’s a good thing. I think that’s the narrative we need to stick to, and we know that it works for us. But it’s actually a good thing that there’s a lot of openings. I think we’re working really hard as a team and people see the opportunity to play.

“All of our sophomores are pushing for a spot to play, for sure. I mean, when you have the type of senior leadership and players we had last year, our practices are at a pretty high level. So they got to go against those people each and every day at practice, which is only going to make them better. Now it’s just a matter of giving them experience playing in matches.

“We are blessed in terms of who we have on our team and we push each other in practice. Each one of our players can push the other. So I really think every one of them has the potential to step in and make a difference on this team in the starting lineup.”

UCLA returns several critical pieces, including Lily Justine (26-5 in 2019), Leah Monkhouse (22-5 in 2019), and Megan Muret (9-0 in 2019).

Savvy Simo-UCLA volleyball
UCLA’s Savvy Simo returns to UCLA beach after starting at outside for the indoor team/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The team will be joined by UCLA indoor stalwarts Mac May (who not only was 6-2 in 2019 but was this season’s Pac-12 indoor player of the year) and her teammate Savvy Simo (30-7 in 2019).

Metzger also has the luxury of another strong recruiting class of freshmen Devon Newberry from Santa Monica and the program’s first Floridians, Lexy Denaburg from Merritt Island and Rileigh Powers from Oviedo.

“We have a smaller class but a very talented class,” Metzger said. ” … All three of them are blue chip, All-American, high school American type players, who I expect are going to have a great career here at UCLA. And they’re learning the ropes right now, but they’re learning fast.”

One of the unique challenges of NCAA beach volleyball is that teams practice for months, in most cases incomplete due to indoor commitments, and don’t begin competition until March, with a relatively short season ending in May. Most teams have a significant amount of continuity from one year to the next, leaving both players and coaches with uncertainty, making a developmental team culture critical.

“This fall has been extremely competitive,” Metzger said, “because everyone’s really vying for those five spots. So it’s been exciting. It’s an exciting time. It feels like less pressure.

“I felt like last year our team was at maturity by having a really great senior class, and so we felt like the time was then for us to capitalize on itself.

“This year feels a lot more free. There’s a lot of learning that’s going on, trying to get everyone up to speed on our systems, etc. And it’s been really enjoyable. I know when we come back in January, everyone will start vying for positions and partnerships. That could get a little bit tenuous, but that’s the nature of the sport and the collegiate game. It’s a team sport and I think we have a really great team culture still that’s carried over from last year or so.”

Serving up Style 2019-AVPFirst-
Jenny Johnson Jordan

Johnson Jordan acknowledges the challenges of keeping players interested throughout months of practice without even forming teams.

“We know that as soon as we try to make a plan too early, it usually blows up,” she admitted. “So we know patience over time has been a better route for us. And so just keeping them engaged in terms of their own personal growth as players and getting them to the point where they’re the best individual players they can be, so when it does come time to pick pairs, they’re ready. That’s for us what fall is.”

Sparks, a sophomore from Huntington Beach, knows that her team needs the player development time. 

“We were stacked last year. This year’s a lot different, because we have a lot of growth to do. We have a lot of talent and a lot of depth just like last year, except we’re young. We’re really young, so we have some developing to do,” Spark said.

“For me personally, I like to compete with myself. Every practice I’m trying to get better at a few different skills, focusing maybe on passing or maybe just simply my hands during setting, like one practice. And by focusing each practice on something different your game play, by the time season comes around, feels a lot more whole and that’s when you start putting things together. By that time, you can play with anybody because you’ve figured out the skill work. Now it’s just time to connect with your partner.”

For Sparks, it’s much easier to go through the fall with an experienced staff as Metzger enters his eighth year, Johnson Jordan her seventh.

“Playing for Stein is a really cool and interesting opportunity. He’s unlike any coach I’ve ever had. He cares so much about his players and is so emotionally invested in us that he takes special time to teach us different skills based on our playing style,” Sparks said.

“I would say in a way I’m kind of like him, because he was a kind of shooty, dynamic player, wasn’t really a big pounder, so he’s really focused with me on developing my offensive style.”

Johnson Jordan, who shares UCLA roots with Metzger, enjoys their work together.

“Oh, it’s awesome. I mean, I’ve known Stein since I was a freshman in college. We were at UCLA together and I think our styles work really well together. We compliment each other well. And I mean, I just have respect for him. He’s very easy to work with. He’s very understanding. Family’s important to him, as it is to me. We share a lot of the same values and visions in terms of our lives with our families, but also where we want this team to go.”

Metzger shares Johnson Jordan’s mutual respect.

“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.”

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