Wednesday, May 27

Senior signoffs: Elise Zappia recalls humble growth of beach volleyball into a championship team

Graduating Bruin Elise Zappia said UCLA beach volleyball's new locker room was well-earned. The program won its first-ever NCAA title from the loser's bracket after knocking off Florida State in the championship dual. (Keila Mayberry/Daily Bruin staff)

As my time as a UCLA beach volleyball student-athlete comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on the humble beginnings of my four-year journey with this program. My first official day as a UCLA student-athlete was not your typical initiation into collegiate athletics. The team had been called for a gathering at the sand volleyball courts at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. We were all so excited as we huddled up by the newly renovated courts.

Then I heard coach Stein Metzger call us down, and without saying anything, he started to unload three massive boxes of two shelves and a whiteboard kit. So my first day as a UCLA student-athlete was not spent practicing, but it was spent doing some serious manual labor. I’ve told this story many times throughout the course of my four years here, but it took me until just recently to realize the symbolism of building those shelves.

It was that group of women that would build the foundation of this program for all those to follow us after. That story was my first experience with building the foundation of this program, but it wasn’t my last.

I look back now and see how difficult but extremely special my first two years of school were. Everyone was trying to figure out how to coach the motley crew of young women we had that first year, how to best organize the program and what it even meant to be a sand volleyball athlete at UCLA.

Zappia, who played alongside freshman Mac May this season, holds the UCLA beach volleyball record for most career wins. (Keila Mayberry/Daily Bruin staff)

Back in those days, our assistant coach, Jenny Johnson Jordan, ran our fall practices because Metzger was still an assistant coach for indoor volleyball. We had no locker room, no laundry loop and a total of three shirts to wear, even though we had practice five days a week. No one even knew UCLA had a beach team. Everyone thought we were a club sport.

We had no hopes of making it to nationals – back then it was American Volleyball Coaches Association, not NCAA. Our greatest aspiration that first year was trying to beat Long Beach State, which we never did.

There were days when I asked myself, “What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?” To me, it always came back to how amazing UCLA was in its entirety. I was surrounded by people who had won NCAA championships and Association of Volleyball Professionals tournaments, and who had competed at the Olympics. I was at a school that modeled its athletic program after John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, which instilled and preached seeking excellence in every aspect of life.

I remember receiving a phone call from my older brother telling me that UCLA had just gotten a beach program and how, in that moment, I knew I was going to be a Bruin. Most importantly, I had the unique opportunity to build my own legacy with the program and with these coaches, which was something I couldn’t give up.

While we were all growing and learning, the potential this program had for the future carried us through the darkest of days, and we all knew that one day we would be making school history. I would do it all over again because we worked together to make it happen on our own little island of uncertainty, rather than following a path that someone else had paved.

It is important to juxtapose my first day with my last to demonstrate the exponential amount of growth this program has had in the last four years. On the first day of my senior season, we were presented with a brand new locker room and an ungodly amount of Under Armour gear. We had all of this tangible evidence that UCLA beach volleyball was now an established program, but we had no title to go with it.

This year, we evolved into a team that planked for two minutes and 16 seconds following a Pac-12 title, turned L’s into lessons in the contender’s bracket and defeated Florida State, the team that eliminated us two years in a row, to win our first national championship.

Looking back on these past four years, I see how this has not just been my story of growth, but the story of the growth of UCLA beach volleyball and how it grew into a championship-winning program in the blink of an eye.

Zappia competed for UCLA beach volleyball from 2015-2018.

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