NCAA beach preview: UCLA embracing underdog mentality despite beginning season on top


This is a look at the top 16 teams in NCAA beach volleyball this season. Why 16? Because that’s how many get bids to the NCAA Beach Championship May 5-7 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And this year there’s a new single-elimination format: One and done. USC is the two-time defending champion after beating Florida State in the 2022 final and UCLA in 2021:

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — There are few, if any, people in the beach volleyball world who understand the mental workings of Stein Metzger as well as Jeff Alzina. For seven years, he coached a young Metzger when he was starring on the AVP Tour. When Metzger took the head-coaching job at UCLA, it was Alzina who signed up to be his volunteer assistant, there to build a program into a force that could one day rival, even surpass, USC.

If you were to tell Alzina that exactly one coach of the seven interviewed by Rob Espero did not pick UCLA as the No. 1 team in the nation, he’d be able to tell you, without a moment’s deliberation, who that coach would be: Stein Metzger.

And he’d be right.

“Stein loves to be the underdog, and I was his coach for seven full seasons on Tour, and so I know his psychology really well,” Alzina said years ago. “He wants to do everything to be No. 1, but never let anyone know, and including his team and partners. Let’s just lay back and let’s let somebody else take all the limelight and then we’ll just surprise everybody. That’s his comfort level.

“When he got really, really good as a player, he got to where people were going, ‘This is the next Karch [Kiraly]. This guy’s 6-foot-3, super yoked, big, long arms. He looks like Karch, plays like Karch. He’s on the left side, went to UCLA.’ It looked like the second coming. And he was like, ‘I never want that. I don’t want anyone to think like that. I’m just me and I just want to be the underdog and keep surprising people.’ ”

Try as Metzger might, there is no hiding UCLA this season.

There is no misrepresenting this Bruins group as an underdog. The Bruins boast the most loaded lineup in the country, top to bottom. Only one player from the 2022 team, Lea Monkhouse, is not in this year’s lineup, and Metzger has done an excellent job filling in even that lone hole, adding transfers Kelli Greene-Agnew, who won 77 matches for LSU, and Haley Hallgren, who won an NCAA championship at USC to go along with 84 individual victories. And UCLA’s once-young core of Lexy Denaburg, Rileigh Powers, Devon Newberry, Abby Van Winkle, Jaden Whitmarsh, and Lindsey Sparks (whose knee injuries suffered at Pottstown might keep her from ever playing beach volleyball again, but it would be remiss not to mention her as a part of that core), are all grown up, senior leaders now, and Metzger may be overseeing the most talented bunch he’s ever assembled in Westwood.

Still: This is Stein Metzger. He recruits or instills athletes with the mentality that once helped him win 16 AVPs and qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games.

“We want to come in thinking underdog mentality and going hard against every single team because we know we’re going to get everyone’s best game,” said graduate-senior Whitmarsh. “We definitely know what we need to do to win and we’ve had our tough losses so using those to fuel the fire and just prepare even more is going to be helpful for sure.”

Talented as they may be, favored as they may be, the core group of seniors, and all below, have never won an NCAA title. Only Van Winkle and Whitmarsh have a national-championship ring, which they won in 2019, when Van Winkle and Zana Muno sealed the final court needed to win UCLA’s second straight title.

“We just want to win this year so bad and however we’re going to do that is great,” Denaburg said. “It can be stressful thinking about it but at the same time, it’s volleyball, and volleyball should be fun. That’s something I try to remind myself. It’s not hard to get motivated because I’m just thinking about winning. Every day, people are pushing each other to make each other better so everyone wants to win.”

Lexy Denaburg-UCLA beach volleyball
Lexy Denaburg/Mark Rigney

2. Florida State

The East Coast’s perennial power, Florida State will again be expected to contend for the national title. Seven starters return from a team that finished 33-11 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Maddie Anderson, the silver medalist at the Dubai Challenge alongside Molly Turner — the two are also expected to play the AVP season once Anderson finishes at FSU — is one of the top players in the country and will look to anchor court 1 for the Noles. Head coach Brooke Niles has also hauled in Paige Kalkoff, a court 1 starter for FIU in 2022, as well as Morgan Chacon, who starred at Florida State, transferred to Long Beach, and is now back in Tallahassee. Two outside hitters from the indoor program, Audrey Rothman and Audrey Koenig, will add depth to the blockers, as they stand 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively.

3. TCU

It felt as if 2022 was the year: The year the West Coast was alas dethroned. TCU had all the pieces, all the momentum, all the historic moments going for it. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as the Frogs closed a remarkable season 39-5 and ranked No. 6 in the country. Hector Gutierrez has assembled a bona fide juggernaut once more in Fort Worth, returning Spain’s No. 2 pairing of Daniela Alvarez and Tania Mateeva Moreno, as well as Sutton Mactavish and Hailey Brockett. He’s also picked up transfer Kate Privett, a perpetual winner for Florida State. Of course, because this is Gutierrez, he’s done well internationally once more, hauling in Ukrainian star Anhelina Khmil, the 2021 U-21 World Champion. Will 2023 be the year? Time will tell. All we know for now is that TCU is a near lock to be back in Gulf Shores and in contention.

USC’s Nicole Nourse/Stephen Burns photo

4. USC

It seems bizarre to write, but is USC something of an … underdog … this year? Maybe. It’s borderline lunacy to label the most dynastic program in the NCAA, winners of the last two NCAA crowns, as underdogs, but the math adds up. Head coach Dain Blanton has just four starters from last year’s team in Delaynie Maple, Megan Kraft, and twins Audrey and Nicole Nourse. Granted, those four starters know little else other than winning, finishing 37-1 and swimming in NCAA glory once more on the Gulf Coast. Blanton has done well to pad the lineup, adding three graduate transfers in Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope (LSU), Madison Shields (Pepperdine), and Jenna Johnson (Florida State). All three are expected to start, as Rasnick-Pope and Shields competed on court 1 for their respective schools, while Johnson rotated between courts 2 through 4. A deep freshman class is highlighted by Gabby Walker, Madison White, Bailey Showalter, Delaney Karl, and Ashley Pater.

5. LSU

No Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth? No problem for LSU and head coach Russell Brock. The Tigers just keep on winning, finishing 2022 32-12 and ranked fifth in the country. Returning from that 2022 team will be 6-foot-4 blocker Kylie Deberg, who has already been tabbed to join USA Volleyball’s developmental program, as well as starters Ellie Shank, Parker Bracken, and Reilly Allred. Deberg, who made a seemingly seamless transition from indoors to the beach, and Shank made quite a statement in Huntsville this fall, winning the inaugural pairs national championship. Brock will have experience in graduate senior Melia Lindner as well as true senior Lara Boos. Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper LSU team without depth being added from the indoor ranks, as the Tigers can count on graduate-transfer Hannah Brister, one of the best players to come out of the Northwestern State program, who played indoors for the Tigers. Aubrey O’Gorman, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Michigan State, could find her sand legs towards the middle half of the season as well.

6. GCU

GCU was one of the sneakiest teams in the West in 2022, winning 26 matches while losing just seven, consistently ranked in the top 10 in the country. This year should be no different, as the Lopes return Allanis Navas, Anaya Evans, Allison Hansen, and Samaya Morin. Evans spent much of her off-season competing on the Beach Pro Tour for the UK, twice coming heart-breakingly close to qualifying in the Dubai Challenge events. Suffice it to say, she’ll be prepared to compete at the NCAA level. Head coach Kristen Rohr is also expecting to get major contributions from Jessica Drake, a 5-foot-9 red-shirt freshman from Fresno, Calif.

7. LMU

On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be the strongest team head coach John Mayer has ever assembled. But to count out Mayer and LMU would always be a mistake. He returns five full-time starters from last year’s team, which won 33 matches and finished fourth in the country. Headlining that group is Valma Prihti, Isabelle Reffel, and Abbey Thorup, all international students who present something of a theme for this LMU team, which will be carried by international talent. Melanie Paul, a Chilean who competes for Germany, transferred in from Pepperdine’s court 1, while freshman Alisha Stevens has made her way from Australia to SoCal. As for transfer Kirstine Garder? She’s from Norway, a product of the TopVolley Academy that has produced Olympic gold-medalists Anders Mol and Christian Sorum.

Georgia State coach Beth Van Fleet is all smiles as she interviews with ESPN’s Andraya Carter after pulling off a big upset at the 2022 NCAA Championship/Stephen Burns photo

8. Georgia State

No matter how deep the East Region may get, with Florida State, LSU, FIU, FAU, Stetson, TCU, and Tulane all routinely competing to either make Gulf Shores or make a deep run at the NCAA Championships, Georgia State will always remain a force in the East. Even after missing the 2021 NCAA Championships and falling in the CCSA Championships to Florida Atlantic, the Panthers rebounded with a 28-13 season that ended in Gulf Shores and ranked No. 7 in the nation. Head coach Beth Van Vleet brings back six starters from that team, including Elise Saga, Kelly Dorn, Maddy Delmonte, and Bella and Maddy Delmonte. Lila Bordis, formerly a court 2 player for Arizona State, has transferred in, as well as Aliisa Vourinen, a redshirt sophomore transfer from LMU who medaled in the Finnish Nationals in 2018 and 2019.

9. Stanford

Stanford made a statement in 2022: The Cardinal are back. Better yet: They aren’t just back in 2023, they’re fully in contention to be the final team swimming in Gulf Shores. Nine starters are back from the team that finished 24-12 and ranked No. 12. That includes court 1 veteran Charlie Ekstrom, rising star Xolani Hodel, who gained professional experience on the AVP with Kim Hildreth and overseas with Hailey Harward, Kate Reilly, Hodel’s partner during a successful run in the U-19 World Championships, and Maddi Kriz and Maya Harvey. Six freshmen, too, have padded the lineup, including Ashley Vincent, Sophie Kubiak, and Kelly Belardi, as well as Swedish newcomer line Andersson. Andrew Fuller has assembled one of his best teams yet in Palo Alto.

10. Hawaii

Last year was a bit of a wild ride for the Bows. They finished 24-17 and proved they could beat any team in the country with victories over LMU, Cal, and Stanford … yet they still lost 17 matches, including a puzzler to UC Davis. Hawaii will be more experienced this season, with eight starters returning, including Brooke Van Sickle, Kaylee Glagau, Jamie Santer, and Kylin Loker. Head coach Evan Silberstein has added transfer Chandler Cowell, who started on court one for Saint Mary’s, and hit the international scene as well, hauling in two Australian freshmen in Jesse Mann and Sarah Burton.

11. Cal

If ever there was a team poised to break out, it is the 2023 Cal Bears. Eight starters return from a team that won 24 matches and finished the season .500 and ranked ninth in the nation. Ashley Delgado, Ava Mann, Ainsley Radell, and Maya Gessner will highlight the core contingent in Berkeley, while two transfers in Sierra Caffo (LSU) and Liz Waters-Leiga (Florida State) are also expected to contribute. Six-foot freshman blocker Marilu Pally is also expected to compete for a starting spot.

12. FAU

Last March, FAU established itself a legitimate threat in the East with an upset win over LSU, who was then ranked No. 5. The Owls remained that way, logging wins over Stanford and Georgia State on their way to a 23-12 2022 campaign. Seven starters are back from that team, including Marketa Svozilova, Ellie Austin, Courtney Moon, and Julie Honzovicova. Head coach Steve Grotowski has also added 6-foot-1 southpaw Stephanie Young and second-team All-American freshman Ashley Adams. There will be big footprints to fill on court 1, however, as FAU graduated Erica Brok and Mackenzie Morris, one of the best court 1 teams in the nation in 2022.

Jayelin Lombard of Cal Poly is coming right at us during 2022 NCAA action/Stephen Burns photo

13. Cal Poly

The Mustangs will be a bit of a wild card this season. They’re light in returners, with only four starters coming back from a team that finished 23-17 and ranked No. 11 in the country. Jayelin Lombard, Piper Ferch, and Piper Naess are expected to compete well, but Josie Ulrich is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and Ella Connor, a first-team All-American and the Big West Freshman of the Year, will miss significant time as well, if not the entire season. It’ll be a young look then, with Izzy Martinez leading a talented group that also includes Margo Smith and Emma Zuffelato. Head coach Todd Rogers has also brought in graduate transfer Brooke Golilk who played soccer at SMU.

14. Long Beach State

Like any traditional West Coast power, there is just no sense in ever counting out Long Beach State. Sure, they only return four starters from last year’s team, which finished 22-14 and ranked No. 15 in the country, but head coach Mike Campbell always finds a way. He did well on the transfer portal, picking up Megan Widener off of Hawaii’s court 3, Maggie Walters from UCLA, and Natalie Glenn, an outside hitter now in California by way of Minnesota. Per usual, Mari Molina will head the lineup, alongside returners Sydney Stevens and Emily Mattoon, while freshmen Malia Gementera and Taylor Hagenah are expected to make an impact. It was a stinger, no doubt, when standout defender Morgan Chacon transferred back to Florida State, and Katie Kennedy opted to pursue professional options indoors, but again: This is Long Beach, and this is Mike Campbell – they’ll figure it out.

15. Stetson

Ah, the Hatters, forever the team nobody — nobody — wants to see in the first round in Gulf Shores. The only No. 8 seed to ever upset a No. 1, Stetson nearly did it again in 2022, going the full distance with UCLA in the opening single-elimination round. So the fact that Stetson is ranked 15 in the preseason should only be a harbinger of a potentially seismic upset to come this May in Gulf Shores.

Eight starters are back from the 2022 team that finished 23-17, including Karin Zolnercikova, Shae Henson, Carolina Ferraris, and Anete Namike. Head coach Kristina Hernandez also added two graduate transfers in Cameron Solberg, who is coming in from Bakersfield’s court 1, and Jenna Gathright, a former court 4 player for UAB. Freshman Tori Clement is another to keep an eye on, particularly as the season develops and the raw edges begin softening.

16. FIU

Annually the most enigmatic team in the NCAA, FIU is posed to, yet again, be an enigmatic team. The Panthers always appear to be on the cusp of breakthrough, but just can’t …quite … get over the hump. Maybe this is the year. Seven starters are back from the 2022 team that finished 22-11 and recorded wins over Georgia State, FAU, and Stetson, including Giada Bianchi, Rachele Mancinelli, Emily Meyer, and Roberta de Freitas. Head coach Rita Buck-Crockett has also added Alice Pratesi, a former court 1 player for Long Beach State, Lucie Pokorna, another court 1 player for New Orleans, and yet another court 1 talent in Milica Vukobrat from Bakersfield. Athina Dimitriadis, a 6-foot-5 Greek standout indoors, will also be testing the sand, and while it may take a few months to get her legs accustomed to the surface, there is little doubting she could be a critical piece come playoffs.

First four out

The NCAA Championship will again feature 16 teams, with a slight twist: The entire tournament will be played in a single-elimination format. If the tournament were to happen today, we predict the following four teams are the first four who would be out of Gulf Shores.

17. Pepperdine

It’s strange to see Pepperdine begin a season this far down. Once one of two teams to qualify for every national championship, the Waves finished 2022 with 12 losses and ranked No. 17. Five freshmen, led by Savannah Standage, will look to make an impact.

18. Arizona

Seven starters return from Arizona’s 2022 team, which had a good, not great, year. Alana Rennie, Alex Parkhurst, and Sarah Blacker will lead alongside transfers Grace Cook and Caroline White.

19. South Carolina

South Carolina will always be good for a few notable wins every season. Last year, FAU and Pepperdine accounted for two of its 20 wins, and the Gamecocks bring back Skylar Allen, Lauren Wilcock, Hannah Mackenhausen, and Kaeli Crews, and have added transfers Allison Coens and Simone Priebe, both of whom started for their previous schools.

20. Washington

Seven — count ‘em, seven! — transfers have been added to the Washington lineup this season, headlined by Teagan DeFalco, Kendall Mather, and Mary Sinclair. The Huskies had some notable wins last year, namely over Hawaii and Cal, and should be more consistently competing in 2023.

The USC dogpile after winning it all in 2022/Tim Britt, techandphoto.com

NCAA beach preview: UCLA embracing underdog mentality despite beginning season on top Volleyballmag.com.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login