HERMOSA BEACH, California — For UCLA Beach Volleyball’s three “COVID seniors,” the triumvirate of Lexy Denaburg, Rileigh Powers, and Devon Newberry, there was never a doubt: In spite of technically being in Westwood for four years, they would be coming back for a fifth academic year and fourth athletically. They’d entered school at the most bizarre of times, when a pandemic rendered their true freshmen season in 2020 to just three weeks and 13 matches.
“It didn’t even cross my mind honestly,” Denaburg said of the idea of graduating after the 2022-23 season. “Three years for a natty? No. I need another.”
“It was never even a question,” Newberry added. “Once COVID hit and we got confirmation that we could come back, it was never even a question that we were going to come back.”
Powers, too, was on a similar line of thinking. But there was another member of UCLA’s senior class who couldn’t be as sure. Jaden Whitmarsh had enrolled one year prior, in 2019, but redshirted that season and was granted what could be called a COVID redshirt the next. Her eligibility, then, was no different than Newberry’s or Powers’ or Denaburg’s. But when USC fended off the Bruins in Gulf Shores in 2023, winning 3-2 to snatch a third straight NCAA Championship that seemed destined to be returned to Westwood, a string of dominoes were touched off. Longtime coach Stein Metzger left to start a beach program at Texas, assistant Jenny Johnson Jordan was promoted, former volunteer Jose Loiola took Johnson Jordan’s former post, and another former volunteer in Kelly Reeves was brought on as the second assistant. Between the lack of closure in Gulf Shores and a new culture being instilled at UCLA, Whitmarsh, who entered last year understanding it might be her last, was left unsure.
Newberry told Denaburg there was a “one percent chance” Whitmarsh was returning.
“That’s all we need,” Denaburg said. “There’s a sliver of a chance and we’ll get her back.”
Whitmarsh’s exploits on the court are easy enough to quantify. She has won 85 matches and lost just 16, twice named a member of the NCAA All-Tournament Team, and went undefeated in the 2023 Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Championships. But what she brings off the court, with five years of experience dating back to when the McNamara twins, Sarah Sponcil, and Zana Muno were still running the show, is more difficult to put a value…