UCLA Setting a New Standard in College Beach Volleyball With Second Straight Title
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It was more than just a block. More than the point that won UCLA’s second straight NCAA Championship. More than a crucial redemption victory for Abby Van Winkle and Zana Muno on court three.
It was, at once, the end of a brilliant era, and the beginning of one that could very well surpass that which preceded it.
It was no small bit of symbolism that it was a freshman, Van Winkle, who scored the final point of the Bruins’ undefeated run in Gulf Shores. Just as it was no small bit of symbolism that it was a senior, Zana Muno, who was with her, same as it was for another freshman-senior duo on five in Izzy Carey and Lindsey Sparks.
It was the seniors who built this house of Southern California beach volleyball power. It is now the freshmen, and an awfully bright group of incoming recruits, who will carry it forth.
The first bricks were laid half a decade ago, when Stein Metzger saw a pair of identical youths, both in looks and style, with magnetic ball control and crafty shots.
“I couldn’t stop watching them,” Metzger said in October of Nicole and Megan McNamara.
Neither, now, can the rest of the nation and, soon, the world. In the past four years, the McNamaras ushered in a distinctly unique epoch of college beach volleyball. While much of the game is going bigger, bigger, bigger, the McNamaras, both 5-foot-10, went the opposite.
They went smaller. Faster. Smarter.
Metzger wasn’t entirely sure if it would work. How could he? USC, at the time, was one of the most dominant programs in all of college sports, and the Trojans were only going bigger. UCLA, with the McNamaras locked in, would flip that on its head.
“Once they arrived on campus, we followed the program very much to their strengths and they’ve been the role models for what it means to train diligently,” Metzger said. “The growth of our team the last four years has been in large part because of them. They came in at the No. 1 position and since then people have been looking to them in terms of what it means to pass and set. They don’t quit on plays. These are all the little things. That’s the secret to our success. When you watch our team play, we’re the smallest team of the top five teams in the country but we beat them with ball control and the details of the game. Without the twins, we don’t do that.”
Typically, these things take time, the construction of programs built upon an entirely different style. Such was not the case at UCLA, which has gone 22-8, 30-6, 40-4, and 35-3 in the four years with the twins.
They may have established the standard of the program. But they didn’t just buy in. They questioned. They prodded. They pushed.
“They make sure they’re on the right path,” former assistant coach Jeff Alzina said. “We encourage that on our team. People are either going to buy in or not buy in, and we want to know. We don’t want kids buying in blind. We want them to know the concept and the why behind what we’re doing. We really want people to push back on us if they don’t believe it.”
The open dialogue created the space not for marginal gains, but for giant bounds. Metzger began hauling in talent similarly dynamic to the twins – players whose skillsets would allow them to succeed with virtually anyone, in any conditions.
It’s why Izzy Carey was able to make the transition from defender to full-time blocker and become the winningest player in UCLA history. It explains why Lily Justine, a junior, was able to do the same, rising from a surprising court five starter to one of the best court two pairs in the country.
The country’s youth have noticed.
Sparks, Carey’s freshman partner on court one, runs an offense that can go pin to pin, with sets high and low. Van Winkle enjoyed an abundance of success on court three, partnered with the athletic and springy Muno.
It would be wrong, now, to say this is Sparks’ team, or Van Winkle’s. UCLA has a magnificent incoming class of freshmen, as it will another after that, and very likely another after that. Success, as the saying goes, breeds success. A winning culture, initially set in place by a pair of Canadian twins, expanded upon and built by an impressive class of upperclassmen, has been set.
The proverbial torch has been passed now – to the freshman on five, to the one with the final block on three, to the recruits jumping and celebrating as if they were already Bruins in Gulf Shores.
“Once they believe in something,” Metzger said, “they’re going to dedicate the time until they get it.”
He was speaking of the McNamaras then. He could be speaking of the entire UCLA program now. A program built with the help of twins, and one now passed onto a coterie of Bruins who won’t just buy in blind, who will push, who will prod, who will question, whose style is no longer against the grain but is quickly becoming the new standard of college beach volleyball.
The UCLA standard.
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