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Defending champion UCLA beach volleyball falls just short of Pac-12 victory

Graduate student Lexy Denaburg sets the ball. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

By Sevginaz Gurleyici

April 27, 2024 1:23 p.m.

This post was updated April 28 at 8:58 p.m.

UCLA returned to Tempe this weekend competing for a consecutive Pac-12 championship, which came down to one game against its crosstown rivals.

No. 2 seed UCLA beach volleyball (32-6, 2-0 Pac-12) faced off against No. 1 seed USC (33-5, 0-0 Pac-12) early Friday morning, resulting in a 3-2 victory that advanced it to the Pac-12 championship.

Held in the Sun Devil Beach Volleyball Facility in Tempe, Arizona, the Bruins entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed. After Friday morning’s winner’s bracket semifinal, they were then destined to face their No. 1 seeded rivals one more time Friday afternoon.

This time, however, the Bruins faced defeat and were left with the second place slot in the Pac-12.

UCLA started the tournament off with two 3-0 sweeps against No. 7 seed Arizona and No. 3 seed Stanford on Wednesday and Thursday morning, respectively, with two pairs playing truncated matches. Friday morning, however, started less smoothly for the Bruins.

With courts five and three’s matches in USC’s favor, UCLA started the day off trailing 2-0. One more pair’s victory for USC would spell out an unsecured spot in the championship for the Bruins.

However, the Bruins had a change of pace, and suddenly the score on the sand was 2-2. It was down to the court four pairing: senior Tessa Van Winkle and graduate student Jaden Whitmarsh.

“I think there is more stress with that, knowing you could be one and done,” Van Winkle said. “I will say the stress is higher, but I think our team does a good job at just staying steady and having faith in one another.”

With post-season tournaments where victories are key to advance, every point counts for the players and the team. Graduate student Lexy Denaburg said the players work to keep their stress down on the sand as the energy and pressure levels are high.

“Maggie (Boyd) and I just keep telling ourselves to let ourselves play free, and just not make the moment bigger than it is,” Denaburg said. “It’s a fun game to play and it’s a really great team. Every time we step on the court with them it’s just such a fun game of volleyball, and there’s no need to stress about it.”

Although the tournament resulted in a loss for the Bruins, UCLA still had experiences to celebrate.

As of Thursday, Denaburg officially holds the record for most career wins in UCLA beach volleyball history with 129 wins.

Despite its loss in the championship, UCLA took its final matchups this week as an opportunity to grow and find momentum heading into the NCAA tournament.

“I think (during) Pac-12s our team really found a good groove,” Van Winkle said. “I know that each pair is more connected from this tournament. And that’s exactly what we need going into Gulf Shores, is having that connection and confidence in our partners. So then leading into Gulf Shores, we can just come guns blazing.”

Coach Jenny Johnson Jordan said every match is a learning experience for the team.

Starting with the conference tournament this week and extending into the NCAAs next week, the Bruins will be spending their postseason on the road.

“I feel great where the team is at honestly,” Johnson Jordan said. “Not only are we playing at a high level, but we’re very much supportive of one another.”

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