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UCLA's beach volleyball team was aiming for title until coronavirus ended season

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 3/23/2020 By Thuc Nhi Nguyen, Los Angeles Times

Stein Metzger noticed the precautions taking hold early. Instead of post-match handshakes, UCLA beach volleyball players offered fist bumps. Hand sanitizer became as common as water bottles. Special care was to be taken while traveling.

But even those signs didn't feel like sufficient foreshadowing for the two days that erased months of preparation.

UCLA's hope for a third straight national title ended suddenly on March 12 when the NCAA canceled its winter and spring championships amid the coronavirus outbreak. The No. 2 Bruins had a chance to break a tie with USC for the most national titles in the five years since beach volleyball became an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

UCLA remained a championship contender this season despite losing five of 10 starters, a senior class that shepherded the program from its infancy when players were still driving to Santa Monica to practice.

Now the Bruins are enjoying a $1-million renovation to on-campus Mapes Beach. With four total courts, the facility is a perfect place for the Bruins to honor last year's graduating class that continues to impact the program.

"They laid down a training culture that everyone else assimilated to when they showed up, so because of that training culture, a lot of athletes knew what to strive for, knew what the standard was," said Metzger, the only head coach in the program's history. "When you see it, then you can go after it."

The NCAA's decision was crushing, Metzger said, and even in the days since the announcement, the coach still sensed disappointment and confusion from his athletes. They weren't sure what to do next. They wanted to find ways to stay positive, even when separated from their teammates. Text messages and FaceTime calls helped keep the situation calm.

"I couldn't imagine not having it at this point," Metzger said of the technology.

Metzger's hope, as his team was just starting to show steady progress, is to find ways to coach remotely, if allowed by the NCAA. Perhaps he can send drills and offer feedback through instructional videos, because even if matches are canceled, Metzger hopes his players can keep up the recent progress that had the Bruins (13-2) on a six-match winning streak to end the year.

UCLA's No. 1 pair with senior Savvy Simo and junior Abby Van Winkle starred during the run. When Metzger put the duo together at the beginning of the year to replace first-team All-Americans Megan and Nicole McNamara, the coach worried that the 6-foot-2 Van Winkle, stepping up from court No. 3, wouldn't be physical enough at the net against top teams.

A dominant six-match winning streak proved the pair's potential.

After losing in straight sets to No. 1 Louisiana State — the only team to defeat the Bruins this season — Simo and Van Winkle rattled off six consecutive straight-set wins.

During the Pac-12 South tournament, Simo and Van Winkle won four matches and let their opponent reach 18 points in a set in only one out of eight total opportunities. They were selected the Pac-12 pair of the week, their second weekly award of the season, and the last one the conference handed out before the season's abrupt end.

Metzger said he will "do everything in my power" to keep the duo together next year. Simo can use an additional year of eligibility if she gets into graduate school at UCLA or adds a minor.

"You never know what can happen in this crazy world," Simo wrote on Instagram after the season was canceled. "Never did I think that my senior season would be canceled due to something completely out of my control. This year has been extremely hard physically, mentally, and emotionally so far and all we can do is lean on each other and stick together."

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(c)2020 the Los Angeles Times

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