Among the many UCLA national championship banners sprinkled around athletic facilities throughout campus, 23 of them can be traced back to the Bruin volleyball lineage. Nineteen to the men’s program. Four to the women’s. But none to the sand’s.
That much UCLA sand volleyball, a fledgling program entering its third season next year, hopes to change – and soon. The sport of sand volleyball itself is currently in just its third year at the collegiate level, yet it is trending upward as high school teams and clubs are beginning to spring up around California. In two years’ time, the sport will likely be pegged as an NCAA championship sport.
“It’s unique in that it’s an emerging sport, and we’re trying to stay in sync with the folks that are adding it at the highest level,” said UCLA senior associate athletic director Petrina Long. “Some people are adding it and not necessarily looking at it as becoming a championship-level sport at their institution. That’s not what we’re doing.”
Behind the scenes, the gears are in the works for something more, something special.
The program made a landmark development this month, opening up two brand-new sand volleyball courts at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center to serve as on-campus practice facilities and a home stadium. Internally, a roster philosophy change is taking place – a team comprised mainly of indoor players is giving way to one with a majority of sand-only athletes.
The few major changes have paved the way for a bevy of minor changes as a fluctuating UCLA sand volleyball program seems to be tipping in the right direction.
Finding a home
Tucked away in the left side of Sunset Rec’s upper level is what coach Stein Metzger calls the “turning point of the program.”
The two new sand volleyball courts – highlighted in Bruin blue and gold, no less, and open to the public at times – have brought a palpable buzz to the program’s future.
“I know our athletes are super excited,” Metzger said. “I think there’s everything here (at UCLA) in order for us to be a powerhouse in the sport. And now that we have courts on campus, I think that’s another big step toward getting there.”
Over the past two seasons, without an on-campus practice facility, the Bruins have been left no choice but to drive to Annenberg Community Beach House twice a week for two-hour 8 a.m. practices.
For the players, the ordeal proved troublesome. Their practice opportunities were limited from having to make such a trip, and usually when they did practice, they’d have to rush back and try to make it to class on time.
This past season, the team held just 22 practices, similar to its inaugural season the year before. In comparison, next season, because of the on-campus courts, Metzger said the team will up its number of practices to 97, more than tripling the amount of practices this season and doubling the total amount of practices from the past two seasons combined.
“I think having more time to train is going to make us a lot better,” said assistant coach Jenny Johnson Jordan. “We saw (this season) when we took a trip up north for four or five days, from the beginning of the trip to the end … we saw a huge amount of growth in the girls. … Really the best thing to do is to just play.”
Dual home matches will be played at the facility as well next year, around six to seven in all. A season’s worth of home games could go a long way to dissolving a discouraging notion the players and coaches alike believe: The majority of students still remain unaware UCLA even has a sand volleyball program.
Roster in transition
For the better part of the program’s first two seasons, indoor athletes filled the team’s rosters. In some ways, UCLA sand volleyball appeared to be a carryover of the UCLA women’s volleyball team.
But as last year’s indoor season neared an end, a vision for a team of mainly indoor players on the sand gave way to a more logical one: The Bruins would mix indoor players and sand-only players, with the latter eventually holding the majority.
“A lot of the indoor coaches who have scouted sand programs realized playing indoor and outdoor takes a very different toll on the athlete, and we’ve already seen the impact of it,” Long said. “We’ve also seen the schools that have decided to go only sand athletes, where they’ve been very successful in their sand programs by focusing on sand only.”
With that knowledge on hand and the aim for his program to join the nation’s elite, Metzger pinned down four sand-only recruits to make the first-ever freshman class in program history. The sand-only player tally will likely hit seven to eight next season, which should be approximately half of the team’s roster.
A significant number of sand-only players and new courts have Metzger set to hold the program’s first-ever fall training segment for those athletes while the indoor players are in season. Because come fall, he understands, the program is headed into uncharted waters.
“The level of seriousness will probably increase as the sand-only athletes come in ’cause I think that’s what they expect,” Metzger said. “Moving forward, it’s probably going to get a bit more tense, a little bit more serious, there’s going to be more practice and training.”
For a UCLA sand volleyball program that has spent much of the previous two seasons under the umbrella protection of being newcomers to the sport, change is imminent.
The once-fledgling program seems to have sprouted its wings.