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Top Moments: Daily Bruin Sports reviews UCLA Athletics’ 2023-2024 highlights

(Designed by Tyler Cho/Assistant Design director)

By Mika McCaffrey, Anthony Aroyan, Matthew Royer, Alexis Hinkle, Gavin Carlson, Jack Nelson, Sabrina Baker, and Joseph Crosby

June 10, 2024 4:18 p.m.

UCLA Athletics made its headlines this year – bagging two new pieces of national hardware along the way. With plenty of individual and program milestones, Daily Bruin Sports steers through the top moments of the 2023-2024 year in UCLA sports.

Men’s volleyball wins back-to-back national championship
Anthony Aroyan, Daily Bruin reporter

(Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

UCLA men’s volleyball season was a tutorial on how to climb a mountain after you’ve already been to the top.

From defeats to Ohio State and UC Santa Barbara to a conference finals loss, eyes were fixed on whether or not the defending national champions would bounce back.

And the Bruins accepted the challenge.

No. 1 seed UCLA defeated No. 8 seed Fort Valley State, No. 4 seed UC Irvine and No. 2 seed Long Beach State to claim consecutive national titles – the team’s first back-to-back title win since the 1995-1996 seasons.

The NCAA tournament was no cakewalk for the Bruins – their semifinal match against the Anteaters reached five sets, and the final went down to four.

In the title-deciding duel, a resurgent Long Beach stole the third set in overtime after dropping the opening two frames. Despite an invigorated home team at Walter Pyramid, three kills apiece from junior outside hitter/opposite Ido David and sophomore outside hitter Zach Rama pushed the Bruins over the hump – helping their squad win the program’s 21st national championship.

UCLA’s veterans also delivered in the championship match – and what would be their final collegiate bout. Senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin led the Bruins in both kills and blocks, with 15 and six, respectively, earning him the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

Alongside Champlin, redshirt senior middle blocker Merrick McHenry’s 10 kills on a .818 clip propelled him to the program’s all-time leader in hitting percentage with .519. McHenry’s physical presence on both sides of the ball, paired with his passion on the court, concocted a winning formula for the Bruins.

After solidifying their second consecutive national championship, the Bruins proved that while they may stumble, they always ascend anew.

[Related: UCLA men’s volleyball downs Long Beach to seize back-to-back titles]

Women’s water polo wins national championship
Mika McCaffrey, Daily Bruin contributor

(Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

A team doesn’t necessarily need to be perfect to rupture a 15-year national championship drought.

But the Bruins weren’t ones to adhere to convention.

UCLA women’s water polo completed the first undefeated season in NCAA history since 2016 – and the program’s first since 2008 – after its 7-4 victory over California to clinch the NCAA championship.

From 2001 to 2009, the Bruins won seven national titles under former coach Adam Krikorian. But after 15 years of dominance from USC and Stanford, Adam Wright led the program to its first national championship in the coach’s seven-year tenure.

In a finale fueled by the team’s rising talent, freshman goalkeeper Lauren Steele was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player – accumulating 17 saves in the championship game alone. Offensively, underclassmen secured six of the Bruins’ seven goals – three of which were courtesy of freshman utility Panni Szegedi.

While other programs often struggle to adjust to an influx of new faces, UCLA experienced the opposite, with its freshmen proving instrumental to the team’s championship victory.

The Bruins made history as one of just two teams to secure an undefeated season since women’s water polo became an NCAA sport in 2001 – restoring their place as a top competitor in the sport.

Despite over a decade marked by USC and Stanford prosperity, UCLA conquered its season’s final peak, establishing a new era for the school and the league.

[Related: Perfection: UCLA women’s water polo wins NCAA title, completes undefeated season]

Football hires DeShaun Foster as head coach
Joseph Crosby, Daily Bruin senior staff

(Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

UCLA isn’t a football school.

Try as they might, the Bruins will always be known for men’s basketball, softball, gymnastics, men’s volleyball – and a half-dozen other sports – before football even enters the conversation.

Recent seasons have done little to change that.

Jim Mora’s iteration of the team started strong, with two bowl and 29 total wins through his first three seasons. But the team slipped after a second 10-win season, and he was fired during his sixth campaign.

Enter Chip Kelly. The college football genius was fresh off middling success as an NFL coach and ready to bring the program back to the heights it enjoyed under Terry Donahue’s legendary leadership.

But everyone knows how that story ended.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, athletic director Martin Jarmond said he’d find a new coach in 96 hours in mid-February. Despite the inopportune timing, a range of candidates presented themselves, including bringing back defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn or poaching someone like coach P.J. Fleck from Minnesota.

Instead, Jarmond turned to DeShaun Foster to make the downright shocking jump from running backs coach to head coach.

It’s the best decision Jarmond has made in his four years at UCLA.

Foster has injected life, enthusiasm and passion into a fanbase that long yearned for an engaging coach. In just a few short months, he sparked fan energy with a Friday Night Lights practice followed by the Spring Showcase at the Rose Bowl. He’s been an advocate for UCLA’s NIL collective, and engaged with students by handing out T-shirts on Bruin Walk.

Put simply, Foster cares – about his team, his players, his school and his fans.

Right now, that’s bigger than winning any individual game.

[Related: DeShaun Foster hired as UCLA football’s 19th head coach, succeeding Chip Kelly]

Maya Brady reaches second all-time in UCLA home runs
Matthew Royer, Daily Bruin senior staff

(Aidan Sun/Photo editor)

If you grow up as a ballplayer a short drive away from UCLA, the confines of Easton Stadium are no stranger to your softball experience.

And if your family is composed of both a former college softball player and MLB draftees, the spotlight is imposed on every step of your journey.

If both are true, it is up to you to take on that steep climb up the Hill and imprint your own legacy on the sport.

Maya Brady did just that.

In her fifth year with UCLA, the redshirt senior shortstop reached second place all-time in program home runs. Brady’s record topped Stephany LaRosa, Tairia Mims and Delaney Spaulding among other Bruin greats over the course of her final season.

Brady said how monumental the honor was to pass Spaulding in the record books when she took then-No. 3 spot all-time as she grew up watching the slugger.

The Thousand Oaks, California, local is the first Bruin since Spaulding to hit more than 15 home runs in three consecutive seasons, while also taking second place all-time in RBIs and multi-home run games.

Regardless of postseason accolades, when it is all said and done, Brady will be known as a Bruin legend for years to come.

[Related: UCLA softball sweeps Arizona State to clinch last-ever Pac-12 regular season title]

Fateful Four: Quartet of teams win last-ever Pac-12 titles
Jack Nelson, Daily Bruin senior staff

UCLA men's soccer (top left), women's soccer (top right), women's tennis (bottom right) and softball (bottom left) all captured regular season Pac-12 titles in the Bruins' final season as part of the conference. (Clockwise: Courtesy of UCLA Athletics, Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin senior staff, Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin & Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

A sinking reality set in with the first soccer matches of late summer. It was felt through the waning days on the diamond in early May.

UCLA Athletics had no choice this year but to depart its longtime home, with each program delivering one last hurrah.

This was the end of the Pac-12 in Westwood.

For four teams, bittersweet goodbyes were all the sweeter. They emerged from twilight with trophies they won’t have to defend, entrenched as eternal champions.

Women’s soccer was first. Led by the Pac-12 Forward and Defender of the Year in senior Reilyn Turner and junior Lilly Reale, respectively, the Bruins finished 10-0-1 in conference play for the outright title.

It came with a bit of history from the top down, as coach Margueritte Aozasa followed a 2022 NCAA championship by becoming the conference’s first female back-to-back coach of the year.

Men’s soccer soon followed suit, completing a year where neither program fell to a Pac-12 foe.

Winning the conference with a 6-0-4 mark, the Bruins’ key contributors were graduate forward Jack Sarkos and senior forward Andre Ochoa, while coach Ryan Jorden became a conference champion for the first time in his five-year tenure.

But over five months would pass before UCLA returned to the pinnacle.

Women’s tennis – spearheaded by defending NCAA singles champion, sophomore Tian Fangran – scaled the mountain, claiming a third outright conference title with a 9-1 record. The Bruins boasted the Pac-12 Doubles Team of the Year for a second straight season, this time consisting of Tian and junior Elise Wagle.

Fittingly, one of the conference’s most revered programs added the finishing touch.

Softball ran to a 17-4 Pac-12 mark and ended as the only UCLA team to win both regular-season and conference tournament titles. Pac-12 honors were three-fold – coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, redshirt senior shortstop Maya Brady and freshman pitcher Kaitlyn Terry won coach, player and freshman of the year, respectively.

The Bruins leave behind that triumphant quartet as their final farewell.

Women’s basketball defeats USC in front of sellout crowd
Gavin Carlson, Daily Bruin staff

(Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Cori Close manifested this moment for years.

Long before this past season’s explosion in national interest for women’s college basketball, the longtime Bruin coach consistently championed the game’s growth. Naturally, she advocated for increased attendance at UCLA women’s basketball games in Pauley Pavilion above all else.

But ahead of the 2023-2024 campaign in particular, Close called for more media attention and less empty seats, not only for her program, but also for its rival – USC.

Of course, the greatest indicator of that mission’s progress would be the first meeting between the programs.

Both ensured the duel would be a spectacle.

UCLA entered at 11-0 on the season and boasted its highest national ranking in program history at No. 2. Meanwhile, USC donned its highest ranking in 29 years at No. 6 after a 10-0 start.

Both for the first time, the rivals would face off while each was undefeated and ranked in the top six. All on a Saturday night in Los Angeles.

Box office indeed.

Despite most students being home for the holidays, the anticipation for the Dec. 30 game was enough to set a women’s basketball attendance record at Pauley Pavilion. All 13,800 seats were filled to watch women’s hoops for the first time since the historic arena expanded its capacity in 2012.

And the show delivered.

The game featured run after run like a film with multiple climaxes. Young superstars fit for Hollywood, such as USC freshman phenom Juju Watkins and UCLA sophomores Lauren Betts and Kiki Rice shined in their respective scenes.

But the Bruins’ supporting actress, sophomore guard Londynn Jones, drew the audience’s largest standing ovation after draining five 3-pointers in a 21-point performance to lead UCLA to a seven-point victory.

At 5-foot-4, the smallest player on the floor made the largest impact on the biggest stage.

Storybook stuff, indeed.

The Trojans would go on to win the second and third showings of the season’s eventual trilogy, but it was the rivalry’s opening act that signaled its ascension to must-see status.

[Related: UCLA women’s basketball hands USC its first loss in historic crosstown matchup]

Luke Powell wins first collegiate tournament
Alexis Hinkle, Daily Bruin senior staff

(Courtesy of Ross Turteltaub/UCLA Athletics)

Luke Powell grew up in Southern California.

The freshman played golf through all four years of high school and practiced at his home course, El Niguel Country Club.

Powell won the 2023 CIF State Championship, the 2023 CIF Southern Section Individual Regional title, Orange County Register’s 2023 Player of the Year and stacked up many more accolades before competing at the collegiate level.

And when he arrived in Westwood to compete for UCLA men’s golf, the winning didn’t stop.

In his first time traveling across the country as a collegiate golfer, the rookie won first place at the Hamptons Intercollegiate in East Hampton, New York – his second tournament ever.

The discomfort of playing in another state didn’t halt Powell’s domination.

Over the 54-hole course, he shot under par in all three rounds with two bogeys and 19 birdies. In the first round, Powell recorded an 8-under 64, the lowest 18-hole score by a UCLA freshman since 2015.

Despite being tied for first place on the final day, the freshman birdied on the 15th and 16th holes to surge to victory.

His performance that day earned him the second-lowest score in program history – a tally only matched by Duffy Waldorf in 1985.

Powell was the season’s first Bruin to earn first place in a tournament – and the only one to do it as a freshman.

[Related: Freshman victory drives UCLA men’s golf to 3rd-place tournament finish]

Lexy Denaburg sets program win records in beach volleyball
Sabrina Baker, Daily Bruin staff

(Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Winning is an impressive feat. But it’s a distinction given to many.

Becoming the winningest is another – and it’s a title only one can hold.

In the last-ever Pac-12 championship, UCLA beach volleyball’s graduate student Lexy Denaburg claimed that recognition.

Denaburg and sophomore Maggie Boyd’s win against Stanford on April 25 in the Pac-12 quarterfinals carved in the former’s 129th career win, rupturing the program’s record in all-time wins.

It was just last year that then-graduate student Abby Van Winkle cracked the 124-win threshold to dub her as the Bruins’ winningest player. Van Winkle proceeded to win four more matches, setting the program record at 128.

Denaburg recorded four more wins since the milestone event, posting a 133-win target on the board for successors to chase. Of the quartet, three transpired at the 2024 NCAA championship, where Denaburg and the Bruins finished as runners-up. Competing on court one the majority of her time as a Bruin, Denaburg proved her ability to beat more seasoned players.

In pursuit of Denaburg’s record, she and Boyd won 15 straight in the season’s crux – from March 9 to April 9 – to help their team secure a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

Denaburg will likely enter the professional foray – following in the footsteps of Van Winkle – as she will have an opportunity to leave a mark on yet another facet of the beach volleyball world.

[Related: Defending champion UCLA beach volleyball falls just short of Pac-12 victory]

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Mika McCaffrey
Matthew Royer | National news and higher education editor
Royer is the 2023-2024 national news and higher education editor. He is also a Sports staff writer on the men’s soccer and softball beats and is Copy staff. He was previously the 2022-2023 city and crime editor and a contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a fourth-year political science student minoring in labor studies from West Hills, California.
Royer is the 2023-2024 national news and higher education editor. He is also a Sports staff writer on the men’s soccer and softball beats and is Copy staff. He was previously the 2022-2023 city and crime editor and a contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a fourth-year political science student minoring in labor studies from West Hills, California.
Hinkle is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's tennis, men's golf and track and field beats. She was previously a reporter on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats. She is also a second-year sociology student.
Hinkle is a 2023-2024 assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's tennis, men's golf and track and field beats. She was previously a reporter on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats. She is also a second-year sociology student.
Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Sabrina Baker | Sports contributor
Baker is currently a Sports contributor on the swim & dive beat.
Baker is currently a Sports contributor on the swim & dive beat.
Joseph Crosby | Sports editor
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
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