UCLA beach volleyball prepares to launch NCAA tournament run against Stetson
Junior Abby Van Winkle rises up for a block against Grand Canyon’s Anaya Evans on March 6. Van Winkle is one of two UCLA beach volleyball starters to have played Stetson before. (Jenny Xu/Daily Bruin)
No. 14 seed Stetson
Gulf Beach Place
May 2, 2022 7:12 p.m.
The Bruins are back in the dance – but this time, it’ll look a little different than usual.
No. 3 seed UCLA beach volleyball (31-7, 8-0, Pac-12) will face No. 14 seed Stetson (23-16) in the first round of the National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship on Wednesday in Gulf Shores, Alabama. For the first time in the tournament’s history, 16 teams will participate, with the opening round being single elimination as opposed to the traditional double-elimination format.
Despite the changes to the tournament, coach Stein Metzger said the Bruins will be ready for the Hatters.
“Stetson is still a very good team, so we’ll have to prepare the team for first-game jitters and a must-win situation,” Metzger said. “But all these athletes we have on our team, they’re no stranger to pressure moments.”
Last season, the bracket featured eight teams competing in a double-elimination format. The blue and gold fell to the loser’s bracket but advanced to the championship final before ultimately losing to USC.
The Hatters are coming off a championship final of their own, claiming the ASUN postseason tournament title to earn an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament. As the winner of its past eight duals, Stetson swept Florida Gulf Coast on April 25 to complete its undefeated run in the conference championship.
Junior Abby Van Winkle, one of four current Bruins to have played the Hatters before, said the team’s first-round opponent is one that must be taken seriously.
“We definitely cannot overlook them,” Van Winkle said. “Anything can happen at nationals. It’s going to be a dog fight.”
In its last meeting with Stetson in 2019, UCLA nabbed a 5-0 victory, including a straight-set win on Van Winkle’s court three, in Miami, Florida. Wednesday’s matchup will also take place along the Gulf Coast in Gulf Shores.
This season, UCLA played a six-dual set in Gulf Shores from March 18 to 20, claiming victories over fellow tournament foes Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Georgia State and LSU amid inclement weather. Stetson’s last appearance in the Alabama beach city was in the 2019 NCAA tournament, where it upset USC in the opening round.
Leading a Bruin starting lineup composed of mostly underclassmen, sophomore Lexy Denaburg said the team’s prior play in Gulf Shores will be a pivotal experience for the final stretch of the season.
“It’s really great that we got the chance to be able to go there in March and just see the conditions,” Denaburg said. “Every day was pretty windy, so it’s nice that we were able to get there and just get that experience before nationals.”
Denaburg added that the team practiced in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoon to get reacclimated to playing in the wind. As of Monday morning, weather forecasts project gusts of nearly 20 miles per hour to hit Gulf Shores during the duration of the tournament.
While the Bruins will be returning south, they will not be returning the same starting lineup from their March matches. Metzger said UCLA has submitted the same pairs from the Pac-12 championships for the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins will play Denaburg and Van Winkle on court one, redshirt sophomore Jaden Whitmarsh and sophomore Devon Newberry on court two, senior Lea Monkhouse and freshman Jessie Smith on the third court, and graduate student Marlie Monserez and sophomore Rileigh Powers on court four, followed by the freshmen pair of Natalie Myszkowski and Sophie Moore on court five.
As the Bruins approach their final duals of the season, Denaburg said her team has what it takes to make a deep run.
“One of our mottos this year is to punch first,” Denaburg said. “This team is good enough to where that if we just go out and play our game, … we have a really good chance.”
UCLA will begin play at noon on Wednesday.