Sand and Deliver
By Wendy Soderburg ‘82
Beach volleyball is one of the hottest collegiate sports, and UCLA’s program — just 5 years old — is already among the best. With a ranking as high as №2 this past season and a roster full of youthful talent, the Bruins are ready to spike their way to the top.
When Madi Yeomans was trying to decide whether to play indoor or beach volleyball at college, her mother asked her a simple question: “What do you want to wear for the rest of your life?” That’s when Yeomans knew she had to choose beach volleyball. “‘Bathing suit’ was my answer,” she says, laughing.
Luckily, Yeomans graduated from high school in 2016, the year the NCAA added beach volleyball as a championship sport. UCLA is one of nine Pac-12 schools fielding a beach volleyball team, and when Yeomans visited UCLA, she fell in love with the campus and its community of athletes.
The fact that collegiate beach volleyball players do not wear bathing suits in competition — they wear tank tops and spandex shorts — hasn’t bothered Yeomans. Following UCLA’s close loss to USC in the finals of the Pac-12 Championship in April, she was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, while she and her partner, senior Kamila Tan, were named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team.
In fact, 2017 was a stellar season for the entire UCLA team, which was ranked №2 in the country going into the NCAA championships in May. Although the team eventually fell to №4 Florida State in an elimination match, the Bruins finished the season with a school-record 30 wins and six defeats, including a school-record 24 straight victories. With half the starting lineup composed of freshmen and the loss of just two seniors this year, things are looking pretty sweet for UCLA.
Beach volleyball, in only its second year as an NCAA championship sport, has exploded onto the collegiate scene. Currently, 65 NCAA institutions sponsor beach volleyball teams; of these, eight were selected to participate in the 2017 National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship on May 5–7 in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
UCLA was one of the eight schools, along with USC, Florida State, LSU, South Carolina, Pepperdine, Hawaii and Cal State Long Beach. Each school sent its top five pairs, ranked 1–5, to compete in best-of-three matches. After three days of hard-fought competition, defending champion USC emerged victorious.
UCLA’s №2 ranking comes just five years after the sport was established on the Westwood campus, and Head Coach Stein Metzger ’96 has seen his Bruins come a long way since then. For one thing, organizational changes have helped the team to improve tremendously. When Metzger — himself a beach volleyball Olympian, AVP professional and UCLA men’s indoor All-American — first came on board as head coach, the team had no practice courts on campus and had to drive to Santa Monica State Beach two to three times a week, starting at 6 a.m. Now, the team has a beautiful sand court facility at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center.
In 2014, Metzger welcomed Kamila Tan, who made history by becoming UCLA’s first all-sand player. Up to that point, members of the women’s indoor volleyball team served double-duty as beach players, even though many of them had never played beach before.
Tan was thrilled to be able to play beach volleyball exclusively at UCLA, even though she felt a little bit lost at first. “Stein was still so new, and the other girls who were filling out the team were all indoor,” she says. “But it’s been so gratifying seeing it come from the ground up and being a part of that whole process. I literally got to be here from day one! And that, to me, is so valuable. It’s been a huge privilege and something that I would never trade.”
One of Metzger’s first moves was to hire Jenny Johnson Jordan ’96 as his assistant coach (former beach player/coach Sean Fallowfield serves as his volunteer assistant coach). Johnson Jordan was a standout on the UCLA women’s indoor team, and, like Metzger, was a beach volleyball Olympian and professional on the AVP tour. She remembers how rough it was during those first few years when all the players were from the women’s indoor team.
“The biggest issue is that indoor is much more specialized,” Johnson Jordan says. “So you can have middle blockers who only hit and block. They never pass, they never set, they never serve or play defense. And when you’re on the beach, you’ve got to do everything. So the girls who tend to have a little more success are the ones who have more all-around skills and can do multiple things. Because you can’t really hide them in the corner!”
This year, the Bruins had four crossover players who moved back and forth between the indoor and beach teams: senior Jordan Anderson, sophomore Zana Muno and freshmen Torrey Van Winden and Savvy Simo. They succeeded as dual-sport athletes because their seasons, for the most part, don’t overlap — the indoor season is in the fall, and beach is in the spring.
Jordan Anderson, one of the crossover players, admits she had quite a learning curve when she started playing beach as a junior. “Last year, I wasn’t very good. I really wanted to just hit the ball like I did indoors. I’m way better at indoor because I’ve been playing it for so much longer,” she says, laughing. “But beach is so much fun to me because it’s new and I’m learning so much. Honestly, it’s the best of both worlds.” Anderson’s hard work earned her a spot on the beach starting lineup this past season.
For a player like Torrey Van Winden, who was named to the 2017 Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, it’s all about time management. “It’s been hard to juggle everything, but I would say that the coaching staff has been really nice. Stein and Mike Sealy ’93 [the UCLA women’s indoor coach] have a good thing worked out in terms of timing. At first I was kind of frustrated because I didn’t have a set schedule — I need it laid out in front of me. And I would wake up in the morning not knowing if I was playing indoor or beach that day,” she says, laughing. “The biggest lesson has been flexibility.”
Anderson’s partner, sophomore Izzy Carey, is a former indoor player who made a permanent switch to beach. She likes that beach requires players to use all their skills (passing, setting, blocking, hitting and defending), and that it’s a very mental game. “I was a setter indoors, so it was a lot about decision-making,” she says. “But I like how on the beach, it’s about strategy and placement, more so than just being the most athletic person on the court. I like how it’s more about being well-rounded.”
Metzger is responsible for coming up with the pairings, a complex task that includes observing the talents and personality of each player. Sometimes injuries to an athlete will force him to shift several players around, as it did this year when Savvy Simo hurt her back.
Van Winden had been playing with Simo but got paired with junior Elise Zappia when Simo got injured. Fortunately, Zappia and Van Winden have been doing very well, as both have played indoor and beach all their lives. (Simo has since returned to the starting 10.) Zappia, however, plays only beach now, while Van Winden continues to play both.
“You have to trust the process and trust that the coaches know what they’re doing,” Zappia says. “They have a vision for where you are now, where they want you to be, where the team is and where they want the team to go, and how it all fits together. And sometimes things work out, not the way that you think they’re going to, but in a way that was better than you expected.”
Although they’ve occasionally played with other partners, there’s no denying the power of twins. Sophomores Megan and Nicole McNamara are UCLA’s №1 pair and have been named to the All-Pac-12 First Team two years in a row. The sisters are also Canada’s top Under-21 team and are representing their home country this summer in Nanjing, China, at the U-21 World Championships.
Like so many of the other women on the team, the McNamaras started out by playing several sports (in their case, soccer, softball and “ringette,” a Canadian game that is similar to ice hockey but with a rubber ring instead of a puck). But as Megan says, “I think when we were at soccer practice and we started to bump and set the soccer ball back and forth, we knew — ”
“Our hearts were with volleyball,” Nicole finishes, laughing.
Although USC is still the country’s top team, the Trojans can be beaten, as was proven when the Bruins snapped their 62-dual win streak in the semifinal of this year’s Pac-12 Championship. And with such a youthful roster — including this year’s freshmen Lily Justine, Remy Wilson and Chanti Holroyd and juniors Jasmine Hogan and Lexi Jasper-Baylin — UCLA’s future is looking bright.
“We have a legacy, a history, in beach volleyball,” says Metzger, the 2017 Pac-12 Coach of the Year. “Go to the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, and you’ll see 13 athletes who were Olympic beach players [an NCAA record]. The sky’s the limit for this program.”
Originally published at magazine.ucla.edu.