HERMOSA BEACH, California — For UCLA Seaside Volleyball’s three “COVID seniors,” the triumvirate of Lexy Denaburg, Rileigh Powers, and Devon Newberry, there was by no means a doubt: Regardless of technically being in Westwood for 4 years, they might be coming again for a fifth educational yr and fourth athletically. They’d entered college on the most weird of instances, when a pandemic rendered their true freshmen season in 2020 to simply three weeks and 13 matches.
“It didn’t even cross my thoughts truthfully,” Denaburg said of the idea of graduating after the 2022-23 season. “Three years for a natty? No. I would like one other.”
“It was by no means even a query,” Newberry added. “As soon as COVID hit and we bought affirmation that we might come again, it was by no means even a query that we have been going to come back again.”
Powers, too, was on the same line of pondering. However there was one other member of UCLA’s senior class who couldn’t be as positive. Jaden Whitmarsh had enrolled one yr prior, in 2019, however redshirted that season and was granted what could possibly be referred to as a COVID redshirt the subsequent. Her eligibility, then, was no completely different than Newberry’s or Powers’ or Denaburg’s. However when USC fended off the Bruins in Gulf Shores in 2023, profitable 3-2 to snatch a third straight NCAA Championship that appeared destined to be returned to Westwood, a string of dominoes have been touched off. Longtime coach Stein Metzger left to start out a seaside program at Texas, assistant Jenny Johnson Jordan was promoted, former volunteer Jose Loiola took Johnson Jordan’s former put up, and one other former volunteer in Kelly Reeves was introduced on because the second assistant. Between the dearth of closure in Gulf Shores and a brand new tradition being instilled at UCLA, Whitmarsh, who entered final yr understanding it is likely to be her final, was left uncertain.
Newberry instructed Denaburg there was a “one % probability” Whitmarsh was returning.
“That’s all we want,” Denaburg mentioned. “There’s a sliver of an opportunity and we’ll get her again.”
Whitmarsh’s exploits on the court docket are straightforward sufficient to quantify. She has gained 85 matches and misplaced simply 16, twice named a member of the NCAA All-Event Crew, and went undefeated within the 2023 Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Championships. However what she brings off the court docket, with 5 years of expertise relationship again to when the McNamara twins, Sarah Sponcil, and Zana Muno have been nonetheless working the present, is tougher to place a price on.
“I used to name her mother,” Newberry mentioned, laughing.
By some means, Newberry, Denaburg and Powers discovered a approach, taking that one %, sliver of an opportunity and convincing Whitmarsh she wasn’t but completed as a Bruin. When Whitmarsh instructed her teammates she’d be again, it cemented the ultimate piece of maybe probably the most skilled puzzle in NCAA seaside volleyball.
“I’m undoubtedly feeling outdated,” Whitmarsh mentioned, laughing. “I’m simply grateful that I had the chance to come back again and use my final yr of eligibility, particularly going out with these three. They’re my closest buddies so it feels actually good to spend our final yr collectively and take advantage of out of it. For me, it was a few issues. I needed to be part of a brand new period with a brand new head coach. Clearly my teammates. We’ve got such a particular tradition and a particular group, it’s onerous to depart that. I really feel like there’s a lot extra to do and I really feel like I’ve a lot extra to present.”
There’s, quite the opposite, little or no for Whitmarsh or Newberry or Denaburg or Powers to actually do. The one trophy lacking from their period within the cupboards at UCLA is that of an NCAA Championship. Solely UCLA and USC have ever gained an NCAA Championship, although not since 2019 has UCLA taken it residence, when Whitmarsh was a redshirt freshman. Had they gained in 2023, there is no such thing as a telling if that may have closed the e-book on Whitmarsh’s profession, and she or he admits “it will have been completely different, however I nonetheless suppose I made the correct determination.”
Of the ten gamers who began the ultimate match on the NCAA Championships, six are again: court docket one’s Denaburg and Maggie Boyd, court docket two defender Peri Brennan, Powers on three, Jessie Smith on 4, and Newberry and Whitmarsh, who completed the yr collectively on 5. Junior Natalie Myszkowski enters the season with a 39-9 report and went 11-2 in 2023, and her freshman yr companion, Sophie Moore, is 41-11 in her profession. Senior blocker Tessa Van Winkle isn’t any stranger to the beginning lineup both, with a 30-11 report within the earlier two seasons. A number of freshmen, too, are anticipated to contribute.
It’s that class of freshmen that has basically allowed the sting of the 2023 NCAA Championships to subside. Whereas some groups may discover it helpful to remind themselves of the hole feeling of coming one match shy from sprinting into the teal waters of the Gulf of Mexico as motivation, “this a model new staff,” Whitmarsh mentioned. “Our 4 freshmen don’t know what that feeling was. They don’t know what it feels prefer to compete in Gulf Shores. We attempt to depart what occurred previously previously. It is a new yr and a brand new journey. It’s a model new yr and we’re trying ahead to what’s forward and staying within the current.”
What’s forward, within the fast sense, is a visit to Hawai’i for the annual Duke Kahanamoku Outrigger Traditional.
Their first match of the season? A rematch of the 2023 title bout with a fully-reloaded USC staff.
“Clearly we all know what occurred final yr however our staff this yr is a brand new staff,” Denaburg mentioned. “Our staff hasn’t completed something but. Final yr was final yr and that was a very completely different staff. We had individuals graduate, individuals left. We’ve got to show it to ourselves what sort of staff we’re going to be. We haven’t gained one sport.”
If historical past is an indicator for UCLA’s 4 senior leaders, wins will likely be plentiful in what’s, no matter consequence, the ultimate season for every of them.
“I really feel a lot older,” Newberry mentioned. “Final yr I didn’t really feel prepared to depart in any respect, I felt like I had a lot work to do. I nonetheless have a lot work to do but it surely’s now a contented and unhappy factor. As I’m experiencing my final first of issues, it’s not a lot of a unhappiness, I’m joyful to be right here however I’m prepared to maneuver on subsequent yr.”