The Bruins are back – and returning all but one player from last year’s championship team.
No. 1 UCLA beach volleyball brought home its first-ever NCAA title in May and became the first team to win the NCAA tournament from the elimination bracket.
The Bruins – who won the school’s 116th NCAA championship – graduated just one player from their lineup and are now led by five seniors who regularly competed on courts one through five last year.
“I think the story for this year is the fact that we have five seniors who are extremely experienced,” said coach Stein Metzger. “The rest of the team has actually benefited from it greatly in terms of learning from them and they’re certainly spoiling us right now with their talent and their work ethic.”
Even though UCLA will retain nearly the same roster this season, junior Lily Justine said the team will have a new challenge to face in the expectations that come with being the reigning champion.
“I would say nothing really changed, but at the same time everything changed,” Justine said. “Because we have kind of the same team, but now we have a target on our back.”
UCLA also boasts an incoming class of six freshmen – four of whom are AVCA High School Beach All-Americans. Metzger said they were all recruited because of their stellar ball control, which he said defines the Bruins’ style of play.
The coach added that the freshmen have been quick to adapt to the more physical style of play at the collegiate level and attributed their learning curve to the seasoned seniors.
“They’re making the adjustment quicker than any freshman class that I’ve seen,” Metzger said. “I think that’s due to having those five solid seniors that they’re learning from each day in practice.”
UCLA also added sophomore Lea Monkhouse – a transfer from No. 5 Hawai’i – to their roster. Monkhouse was 17-6 against ranked opponents as a Rainbow Wahine, and went 2-2 against Justine and then-junior Sarah Sponcil on court two last year.
Senior Megan McNamara said the Bruins’ new talent will give UCLA depth it lacked last season.
“We have such peace of mind that if an injury happens or anything happens down the road this season, we have so many great players we can pull off the bench and plug in,” McNamara said. “It’s made practices a lot more competitive so I think everyone’s grown a lot in the preseason training.”
UCLA’s preseason training will be put to the test in its home opener Thursday morning against No. 6 Cal Poly.
Metzger said the team is looking for a better start to its season than last year, when the Bruins dropped three of their first eight matches.
“When we get tentative, we give other teams the opportunity to beat us, and that happened last year going to Hawaii for our first match,” Metzger said. “Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and we’re going to come out playing our brand of volleyball right away.”