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Manhattan Beach Open: USC, UCLA athletes build foundation for beach volleyball’s growth

MANHATTAN BEACH — When Stein Metzger started the beach volleyball program at UCLA nearly 10 years ago, recruiting was simple.

“Back then, I would just grab my lawn chair, jump on my cruiser and ride down to Hermosa Pier, and everyone came into Hermosa during July,” Metzger said. “And that was where all the recruiting happened.”

In 2022, recruiting in beach volleyball is much more complex. Since the NCAA sponsored the sport in 2016, beach volleyball hotbeds have popped up around the country, from Texas to Florida to Arizona. Finding the best recruits requires more legwork.

Yet, there is little doubt that Southern California remains the hub for beach volleyball. Nor is there much debate over which two programs most recruits clamor to attend: USC and UCLA. The two schools have combined to win every NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship so far — USC has four and UCLA has two.

At the AVP’s Manhattan Beach Open this weekend, 22 players placed in the main draw are from the two schools — 12 from USC and 10 from UCLA — making up nearly a fifth of the 128-player field. Collegiate success translating to individual success at professional level is no coincidence.

Metzger said three things separate USC and UCLA from the rest of the pack: the rivalry between the two programs bringing out the best in one another, both schools investing in Olympic sports and the proximity to so many of the sport’s best recruits.

“Every kid in SoCal wants to stay here,” Metzger said. “And probably 80 percent of kids outside of Southern California want to be here.”

Sarah Sponcil, a 26-year-old Phoenix native, helped UCLA win its two titles in 2018 and 2019 after transferring from Loyola Marymount. Growing up, she’d make the trek to Southern California to play better competition in youth tournaments.

“I was winning all these tournaments in Phoenix, and I was like, ‘This isn’t real beach volleyball,’” Sponcil said. “I needed to see what it was actually like.”

Having well-run programs in the sport’s early years helped provide a foundation for the initial batch of recruits. Under Metzger, a former Olympian, UCLA has ranked in the top 10 in each of its first 10 beach volleyball campaigns. At USC, Anna Collier — who retired in 2019 after eight seasons as coach — quickly led the program straight to the top with three straight titles from 2015 to 2017.

Collier coached her players like professional athletes, according to Sara Hughes, who won four titles at USC and has three wins on the AVP tour.

“We weren’t just a collegiate team,” Hughes said. “She pushed us in different ways. Like, ‘Yes, that ball would’ve gotten down on a collegiate player, but it wouldn’t have gotten down on a professional player.’ So we were always thinking bigger at USC rather than just collegiate level.”

Both USC and UCLA were willing to invest in the sport from the start, the 27-year-old Hughes added.

“(USC) wanted to build a beach program and really develop it and be one of the first to really have a full-blown team,” Hughes said. “Not just indoor players coming out to the beach, but solely beach players. For me that was just a really big deal.”

But the talent may spread to other parts of the country soon, and when a college program from an area with a non-traditional beach volleyball background wins a title, AVP CEO Al Lau believes that will be a sign of growth in the sport. TCU, Louisiana State and Florida State are a few other schools on the cusp of breaking through.

“The natural transition is it just shows the growth of the game,” Lau said. “And it’s the growth of the game in areas and pockets that probably the average person won’t associate with (beach volleyball).”

Zana Muno, who was also part of both championship teams at UCLA, said being able to practice against talented teammates gave her the confidence to succeed at the pro level. In her first main draw, she and her partner Crissy Jones qualified as the 47th-seed, tied for the fifth-lowest seeded team to advance to the main draw in AVP history.

Muno, 26, thinks the sport is “growing unlike anything I’ve ever really seen or experienced,”

“It is so crazy to go out and watch the youth playing at the level that they’re playing at now,” Muno said. “It’s kind of mind-blowing. Because it wasn’t a collegiate sport. It was so underdeveloped.”

Tri Bourne, a 10-year veteran of the AVP Tour who played collegiately indoors at USC, said that while the expansion is mostly occurring on the women’s side, the men are also seeing better exposure and opportunities.

Crucially, while athletes may have previously played indoor volleyball first before switching over to beach, there are more youth who see beach as a direct option.

“The college game in general has pushed it massively,” Bourne said. “It’s grown the sport at the grassroots level. It’s made it so that kids, mostly girls — and also their parents — see an opportunity for them in the future through beach as an avenue.”

The opportunities are starting to spread around the country, beyond Southern California. Yet, as the world’s best beach volleyball players descend upon Manhattan Beach this weekend, Metzger can’t deny his geographic advantages at UCLA.

“This is the hub of beach volleyball,” Metzger said. “This is where there’s the greatest concentration of volleyball talent and volleyball knowledge with coaches and players in the world, and people want to be a part of it.”

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