Sarah Sponcil has homework to do

Sarah Sponcil Still Has Homework to do

It is, of all places, a few stories above a casino in Las Vegas that the competing dichotomies of Sarah Sponcil’s beach career become most visible. Earlier in the day, a Friday in mid-October, in a park on the north side of Circus Circus, Sponcil competed alongside Kelly Claes in a four-star FIVB. A narrow loss to Brazilians Elize Maia and Maria Clara Salgado had been atoned for with a thorough thumping of Germans Anna Behlen and Cinja Tillman, advancing them to the next day’s elimination rounds, set to begin in the mid-morning.

Later that night, Claes would go out for dinner, enjoy Vegas. Sponcil stayed in their room at the MGM Grand.

She had homework to do.

“I don’t know how much I did right,” she said, laughing, “but it’s submitted, it’s in the archives.”

A few months later, she’d begin practicing with UCLA, preparing for her final collegiate season, adding national championship to her list of three goals that demand full-time commitments — bachelors degree, second straight national title, Olympic berth.

What’s funny is that Sponcil, in between practicing with UCLA, competing with Claes, competing with the Bruins, practicing with both, maintaining the close relationships with her college teammates and finishing out school, thought she’d have some free time this spring.

“Honestly,” she said in Hawai’i for UCLA’s season-opening weekend, “it’s been crazy, chaotic.”

She’s handling it all well enough. That’s what Sponcil does. She wins. It doesn’t really matter the setting – college, FIVB, AVP, a classroom. She just gets the job done. Currently, her and Claes are ranked tenth in the world in the race to the Tokyo Games. At the same time, her and UCLA partner Lily Justine are one of the most dominant pairs in the country, undefeated, named the AVCA Pair of the Week on March 5..

“It’s very by the day, by the week,” Sponcil said. “The good thing is that Kelly – our team has been very supportive, on my time, and I appreciate that but definitely a balance, just staying present, getting better with Kelly when I can, getting better with Lily. I just try to get better, whichever partner I’m with. For me, it’s just staying present and enjoying whatever moment I’m in.”

It helps that her teammates — Claes for the Olympics, Bruins in college — can empathize. Claes understands. When she was at USC, putting together a decorated career with Sara Hughes that included three straight national championships as partners and a perfect junior season, they’d finish the school year and then take to the AVP and FIVB, winning Chicago just months after graduating.

“It’s been so nice just to be able to focus on this and put all the little pieces together,” Claes said in Las Vegas. “She’s gotta finish school and get that degree.”

That is priority No. 1 for Sponcil. Same goes for her teammates Nicole and Megan McNamara, who have shouldered a similarly extraordinary beach burden, competing both for UCLA and Canada. Immediately after winning the National Championship in 2017, they hopped on a plane bound for Bangkok for a one-star FIVB.

“Talk about stressful,” Nicole said in the fall.

“They’re trying to do the same thing,” Sponcil said, “so we’re discussing ‘Are you gonna go? Are you not gonna go?’”

Both the McNamaras and Sponcil had a decision to make in terms of where to compete this weekend: a three-star in Sydney, or crucial college matches against Pepperdine, LSU, Florida International, Florida State and TCU. They stayed. They stayed despite not necessarily having to. Coach Stein Metzger takes these conflicts on a case by case basis, for there is no real precedent, aside from Claes and Hughes and current Trojan Tina Graudina, for players who have the ability to make a run at the Olympics and win a National Championship in the same year.

“I think it’s inspiring for everyone on our team to see that the athletes coming through our program are getting to the point where they’re taking off and playing at the pro ranks,” he said. “It’s inspirational for everyone on our team and gives them something to shoot for and motivated for. ‘Hey, this is something tangible and real and some of us are doing it.’”

Sydney was the only conflict for Sponcil. Finding time to practice with Claes is difficult, but it has been this entire time and hasn’t seemed to matter much. They’ve played three tournaments together, medaled in two – bronze in Qinzhou, China; silver at The Hague in January — and finished in the top 10 in Vegas. After Gulf Shores, annual site of the NCAA Tournament in early May, Sponcil will be on the road for nearly two straight months. There are four-stars in Brazil and China and the Czech Republic and Poland. If they qualify, it’ll be onto Hamburg for World Championships, which precedes the Gstaad Major and more four-stars in Portugal and Tokyo and the Vienna Major.

She’ll take that on when it comes. For now, it’s bus rides with the Bruins. It’s sniping pictures of sleeping teammates and studying teammates and very much embracing, for one final season, all things college. It’s getting her degree, staying present in the moment she’s in.

“I can just really enjoy my last season with the team,” she said. “Ever since I came to UCLA I’ve loved it and you’re representing one of the top schools in the country and it’s always an honor and I love all my teammates and just to be out here one last time with them and my last season here, it’s really sad. I’m excited to see what we can do.”

For now, the Olympic push is tabled, UCLA’s season is at the forefront, and Sarah Sponcil still has homework to do.

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