GULF SHORES, Ala. – Nobody goes to a national championship wanting to finish in third place.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered an achievement.
“After losing our very first game of the tournament and having to go the back route, the hard way, we really stuck together as a team,” said freshman Megan McNamara. “I’m really proud of how we all played and where we ended up.”
The No. 4-seeded Bruins (22-8) had an admittedly bad first day after dropping their opener at the inaugural NCAA championship 3-0 to the No. 5-seeded Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine (18-10).
To make matters worse, they had to endure several tense moments against No. 8 seed Stetson (28-9) before finally surviving after the pair of junior Jessyka Ngauamo and freshman Zana Muno clinched the third set and winning point against their Hatter counterparts.
“I think we were a little bit unprepared coming into the first day,” said senior Kamila Tan. “We didn’t underestimate the situation, but we didn’t have the right mentality.”
In response to their less-than-desirable showing on day one, the players held a meeting sans coaches and took the onus upon themselves to fix those issues.
But outside of the meeting the coaches had a suggestion of their own for how to get back to the team’s old winning ways.
“We talked about how we’ve been in the underdog role all year long, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the higher-seed role and it was like trying on a new pair of shoes,” said coach Stein Metzger. “It was uncomfortable. It was a different feeling, and we played that way.”
What happened next was a total 180 for the Bruins. Armed with stronger passion and desire combined with a rediscovered underdog mentality, UCLA took down No. 3 seed Pepperdine (20-5) 3-2 to book themselves a rematch with Hawai’i. It once again ended in another 3-0 sweep, but this time in UCLA’s favor.
The Bruins’ Cinderella story ended a few chapters too early, however. They failed to take down the No. 1-seeded Florida State Seminoles (32-3) and were sent home one game away from the grand ball. But it wasn’t because of the same issues that plagued them during day one.
“You saw that same fight today and you saw a ton of heart in every one of those matches,” Metzger said. “They put everything into this and we came up a couple short so we’re satisfied in the extent that we came to play everything that we could. But we’re certainly hungry for more.”
It wasn’t all bad news for UCLA at the end of the team’s run at nationals though. Although Tan participated in the senior day ceremony earlier in the season, she recently had a change of heart. After the tournament, she opened up to her teammates about her decision to return to UCLA for a fifth year in order finish her final year of NCAA eligibility.
UCLA will have to fill the void of graduating starter Julie Consani, but the team will have a pool of returners and promising new recruits to form the foundation of next year’s team. And as of Sunday, they will also have a veteran player ready to lead the team for a second run at nationals.
“My goal is to get back here. Absolutely,” Tan said. “If I can push everyone on the team next year and guide them any way I can, I will do that to get our team back here.”
Email Yeo at [email protected]