‘There’s Something Special’ About UCLA’s Lily Justine
LOS ANGELES – The girl poking and passing the ball to herself wasn’t on the list. Stein Metzger, parked in his beach chair, under an umbrella, didn’t know who she was, though watching her was a bit intriguing.
“There was something special about her,” he said. So he kept an eye on Lily Justine, off to the side, while keeping his main purpose in mind: Identifying the next class of UCLA recruits. Justine’s name hadn’t come up on his list of the players he was there to watch. Soon, he’d find out why.
“I saw her on the court and I was like ‘Well she has no idea what she’s doing,’” he recalled, laughing.
But still: There was something about her.
“She just seemed excited and passionate about playing the sport,” he said. “She wasn’t off chatting with friends. She looked like a jock, like she wanted to play.”
And even though she was a bit lost, at times, on the court, she was “fast. Springy,” Metzger said. “I saw potential. Though she wasn’t polished, and I’m kind of a sucker for polished athletes, ones that have hand-eye coordination, great court sense and IQ, and she wasn’t there yet. She was kind of a diamond in the rough.”
A scholarship from UCLA? That’s what came of that chance encounter? Justine was just happy to have been there at all.
A native of Chico, California, she wasn’t raised in a beach volleyball metropolis. Santa Cruz, which is also not where high-caliber players flock to for beach training, was a four-hour drive away. If she couldn’t make the drive, there was no natural beach in Chico, so she’d go to the local sand courts, where “it was just old guys playing old man beach volleyball,” Justine said. “That’s pretty much what I had.”
She had that, and a concession stand. That’s how she’d afford trips to Southern California, where it wasn’t old guys playing but the best of her age group, the best in the country. During local high school games, Lily, her mom, and step-dad would set up a concession stand, using the profits for gas money to Santa Cruz, plane tickets to LAX, a budget to stay in Southern California for a month or two at a time.
“She was constantly trying to find competition,” Metzger said.
The day she found it happened to be one of the days Metzger was hard at work with his chair and an umbrella, watching the girl playing by herself. Justine was different than his prototypical recruit. She didn’t have the refined game of the McNamaras, who had grown up playing the sport. She didn’t have the wide-ranging skill set of a Sarah Sponcil, or the consistency of an Izzy Carey. But she had something.
She had a jump that few others in college can rival. She had the speed that would work perfectly in his system of tempo offenses and movement-centered defenses. She had the zest for the game to not be distracted on the sidelines, but to be constantly touching a ball.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he said. “I just knew there was a spark in her, a passion about playing and that her system fired well.”
Sponcil didn’t know what to expect, either. The only Bruin she was relatively familiar with prior to transferring from LMU as a junior was Torrey Van Winden, and she was transferring to Cal Poly.
“I came in and she was like ‘Ok, bye,’” Sponcil recalled. “So everything was really up in the air.”
She knew Metzger wasn’t going to split up the McNamaras. But after that, she wasn’t sure. She knew Carey, who had just set the best record in UCLA history, going 32-3. She wasn’t familiar at all with Justine, who had been shocked into starting on court five her freshman season.
“I was like ‘Nah I’m not gonna play. I’ll just, whatever, I’m a freshman, I got time,’” Justine said. “And then people were quitting, people got hurt, and I was in the lineup, I have to perform. This is crazy. I’ve never played collegiate beach volleyball. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She figured it out. She figured it out as Metzger knew she would. Athletes who get recruited as a jumper in track and field, as an outside indoors, as a potential defender or blocker on the beach, with the smarts to get offers from Ivy Leagues, tend to be exceptional at learning on the fly.
By the time Justine was a sophomore, and Sponcil had transferred in, Metzger needed another full-time blocker. Justine had every tangible required – springs, hand-setting, physicality, a creative mind to run a dynamic offense with one of the best setters in the country.
“The first time I was on the court with her I set her and she just hit it straight down,” Sponcil said. “And I was like ‘Oh, this could be good. This could be very good.’”
It has only gotten better. In their first season, they went 33-8 and were named the court two Pair of the Year. They scored the dual-clinching points in both the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships.
Skill sets can align between any two players fairly often, and still, sometimes partnerships, for whatever reason, don’t work out. Justine and Sponcil have that rare alchemy of both the personality and skill mesh.
By the final match of the NCAA Tournament, teams had served Justine so often that she had gotten so good on offense that, eventually, “they did what they should,” Justine said, “and they tried something else.”
Sponcil wasn’t ready. She hadn’t been served all season. She wasn’t confident her serve-receive offense would suddenly show up after two months of little pressure.
“She just took me by the hand, looked me in the eye and said ‘You got this,’” Sponcil said. “That helped a lot.”
“It was me and her against them,” Justine said. “It was one of our better moments.”
And it has led to another season of memorable moments. Justine and Sponcil are, again, one of the top court two pairs in the country, helping UCLA maintain a more than year-long streak ranked No. 1.
Heading into the NCAA Championships this weekend, the Bruins are No. 2. Justine has come a long way from the girl on the sideline who didn’t make the list. She’s now one of the most formidable and athletic blockers in the country, with an opportunity for a second straight NCAA title weekend.
“Day by day, point by point, opponent by opponent,” she said. “Don’t look too far ahead.”
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