Kamila Tan lunged forward, ready to dig the ball her Arizona opponent sent toward the end line.
But the senior retracted her arms at the last second after hearing repeated cries of “It’s out” from her partner, freshman Zana Muno. As Tan stood up from her prone position and brushed the sand off, she turned to the celebrating Muno and said, “It wasn’t out,” coaxing a sheepish smile and apology out of the freshman.
Undeterred by the error, Tan responded with an outstretched arm to high five her partner. They lost that point, but they were ready to fight for the next.
“I think we had a really good reset mentality,” Tan said. “If something didn’t go our way or if we didn’t communicate perfectly then we just reset and got the next point.”
It was Tan and Muno’s first outing as a partnership, but their unfamiliarity playing with each other didn’t impede them from contributing a crucial point in No. 3 UCLA’s 3-2 win over No. 7 Arizona – a team gunning for one of three coveted NCAA tournament qualification spots in the West.
“This is a must-win for us,” said coach Stein Metzger. “This one makes a big difference for either team whether they’re gonna have a shot when it comes to the end of the season to make it into the championships.”
Saturday’s win over the Wildcats (5-1) at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center also came in spite of a slew of bad luck which forced several Bruin (4-3) personnel to the sidelines.
“We’re a little shorthanded because of some illness and injury stuff,” Metzger said. “But it just shows you how far we’ve come in one year in terms of depth that we can have three people that are out and still be able to compete at a high level and hold off a very solid, very physical team.”
Amid shuffling lineups, Tan was tasked to play with her third partner of the week. Those changes placed the veteran in situations where she had to use her experience to adapt to different roles on the sand – whether it be playing on the right as a defender with junior Jordan Anderson on Thursday, or as a primary blocker on the left with Muno just two days later.
But she also needed to adjust to the different rhythm and idiosyncrasies that came along with different partners. Muno and Tan’s partnership showed some growing pains as occasional miscommunications led to situations where they’d lose points when both or neither one of them would go for the dig down the middle.
In order to curb those lapses in communication the senior-freshman pair made sure to delineate roles prior to the serve.
“Communicating during a play with a teammate when you’re new is hard,” Muno said. “So we had to just talk ahead of time, who’s doing what and we had to stick to it. And as long as we both knew what our job was, that was it – then it worked out.”
But that strategy also came with a need to trust the other.
“For example, on serve receive she’d tell me ‘I’m gonna take the middle 100 percent of the time,’” Tan said. “So I was like ‘Okay, that’s your goal.’ Even if I thought it was mine and she called it off, I’d just let her have it.”
As Tan found herself in a familiar position close to the edge of the end line in the third set, she bent her knees and braced for a dig. But once again, Muno told her to let it go. The on-the-fly adjustment caused Tan to lose her balance and fall backwards as she watched the ball sail out of bounds.
The senior, still on the ground, immediately pointed to Muno as smiles spread across both their faces with the score now 14-11 in their favor.
The trust in each other never left, and now, they were just a point away from victory.