The UCLA beach volleyball team received a group text Friday night after falling to Florida State on opening day of the NCAA championship weekend.
“Go shower,” coach Stein Metzger wrote. “Then stand by for the team plans tonight.”
The team had just seen its 31-match win streak dissipate – but rather than watching scout videos to prepare for the elimination bracket, the team members went miniature golfing instead.
“We just took a second and realized that this isn’t all about volleyball,” said freshman Mac May. “I think (mini golfing) helped our team to come back together at a point where we may have wanted to split apart for a little bit, and I think it was a great decision by the coaches.”
The Bruins (40-4) triumphed through the elimination bracket – facing a Florida State team that sent UCLA home the past two years and a USC team that was crowned three-time defending champions last season – to bring home its first-ever NCAA title Sunday.
May addressed the team at the end of Friday night with a message that the Bruins would remember going into the weekend.
“This was the game that we needed to lose,” May said. “To slap us in the face and remind us that winning a national championship isn’t going to be easy.”
Metzger, originally an assistant coach for the indoor team, took over beach volleyball when the sport was added to UCLA Athletics in the spring of 2013. It took just six seasons to build a championship team.
“Everyone pulled in one direction to make this happen,” Metzger said. “There’s got to be over 100 people that had a hand in making this happen.”
After coming home from the postseason empty-handed in both 2016 and 2017, the Bruins topped off a national record of 40 dual wins with both Pac-12 and NCAA championships for the first time in program history.
Beach volleyball is arguably the fastest-growing sport in the nation, according to ESPN analysts. For the first time ever, ESPN covered the entire NCAA championship – even before men’s indoor volleyball.
“This sport has gone so deep with it being played at such a high level,” Metzger said. “It’s just a total pleasure to be around (beach volleyball) and everybody needs to (be coming) to this tournament.”
Looking ahead to next year, UCLA will return its No. 1 duo of juniors Nicole and Megan McNamara, who were UCLA’s only pair to never drop a set at the NCAA championship. The sisters finished the season 37-7 and received Pac-12 Pair of the Year honors.
“The McNamaras helped keep a very solid foundation to this team,” May said. “They worked very hard this year to become that good at holding down the fort for us and I’m just so proud of them.”
Despite finishing off her last season of indoor volleyball this year, junior Sarah Sponcil will return next season with one more year of eligibility on the beach.
Sponcil, whom Metzger often refers to as “the best setter in the country,” clinched dual point with partner sophomore Lily Justine in the final two duals of the NCAA championship.
The Bruins will graduate just one senior from their lineup, but welcome an incoming quartet of freshmen – all four products of Southern California who have four-year letters in either beach or indoor.
As one of the two freshmen from this season’s lineup, Megan Muret said the stakes will be even higher next year.
“Now that we know what it tastes like, I think everyone is going to be even more motivated in the offseason,” Muret said. “(Since) we’re defending champs (now), it’s going to be even harder to do it again next year.”
As the season concludes, the Bruins’ home wasn’t just on the sand, but it was also within the team itself.
“I think that’s one of the strengths of our team,” Muret said. “Just our ability to unite.”
Even bonding over mini golf.