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UCLA Blocking Out the Noise at NCAA Championships

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It was after the first day of Pac-12 Championships when Stein Metzger made a peculiar yet astute observation: His UCLA Bruins, at the time, had held the No. 1 ranking in the country for more than a year. And yet, not a single pair was ranked No. 1 on their own court.

The McNamaras, those indefatigable twins on court one, trailed USC’s Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante and LSU’s Claire Coppola and Kristen Nuss. On court two, Sarah Sponcil and Lily Justine were one spot behind that. Abby Van Winkle and Zana Muno just cracked the top 10 on three. Savvy Simo’s and Lea Monkhouse’s 20-4 record on four put them at the fourth-ranked spot. Izzy Carey, the model of consistency in college beach volleyball, and Lindsey Sparks trailed only one pair on court five.

It is for this reason that UCLA can prove, at times, just vulnerable enough for matches to remain close — and unbeatable enough to explain why only USC has been able to top the Bruins this season, and why it went to the final court every time to do so.

“The real strength in this team is that if you look at the rankings, we don’t have a team that’s ranked No. 1 at any of the spots,” Metzger said. “We’re No. 2 or three at just about every spot. Individually we’re good but as a team we’re better.”

UCLA’s depth is not a new storyline this season. It’s been the theme all year long. Lately, as the level of competition has risen, along with the stakes of the tournaments the Bruins have been playing, it’s simply become far more prevalent. At one point in the past two weeks, between the Pac-12 Championships and the NCAA Tournament, the pressure to win has been the burden on every court, without one single pair always being relied upon to bail the team out.

Sometimes it’s courts four and five, which delivered the first and final wins, respectively, against Florida State, in a match where every court went three sets.

Sometimes it’s the forever-steady McNamaras, Nicole and Megan, as it was on day one against Hawai’i, gritting through a 20-18 win to avoid an upset to the Bows.

Still others it could be Sponcil and Justine on two, winning quickly, decisively on Saturday morning against LSU, or Muno and Van Winkle on three, who did the same.

“We try to focus on just blocking out all the noise,” Muno told reporters. “We didn’t look up at the scoreboard and we didn’t think about what’s happening on the other courts. We just tried to put that aside or just focus on our attention and celebrating points.”

Quieting the noise has been Metzger’s mantra to the team since the onset of championship season. Don’t let the expectations get to your head. Don’t play it any differently than in February and March.

Just play. Worked all season long. No need to change now.

For now they have but one match left. One match left to keep the focus on their court, their points, their own noise. On Sunday, the Bruins will play the winners of LSU and USC, the only program that has been able to defeat UCLA all year.

“We certainly talk about the noise,” Metzger said at the Pac-12 Championships. “The further along you get, there’s more media attention repeating to you ‘Oh, expectations, you guys are the team to beat, this and that’ so our job is to continue to just play our brand of volleyball. We don’t have to play an ounce better than we did all year long and not any more. We just have to play to our standard. We’re trying to block out any expectations.”

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