Fiery UCLA duo hopes to repeat at NCAA beach volleyball national championships
Normally pinpoint in her accuracy, Lily Justine's pass was off the mark, and it sent teammate Sarah Sponcil scrambling.
It was match point against Florida State, and a win by Justine and Sponcil would give UCLA the 2018 NCAA beach volleyball national championship.
Knowing what was at stake, Sponcil sprinted with extra ferocity to make a play, but her set to Justine kept the Bruins improvising.
"It was actually not a great play," Justine said. "My pass needed to be in a certain spot, and I messed it up. Sarah's set was spinning, and I was tripping ... and I just tapped the ball."
It may have lacked artistry, but the play ended with a down-the-line kill shot by Justine, who moments later was as the bottom of a sandy dogpile as her Bruins teammates engulfed both her and Sponcil in celebration.
"I think of that last point every day," Sponcil said of the play that resulted in UCLA's first beach volleyball national title and an NCAA-record 40th win of the season.
On Friday, Sponcil, Justine and the Bruins (31-3) will return to Gulf Shores, Alabama, in an attempt to repeat as national champs. Of the eight teams that qualified, the Bruins are seeded second and will open the double-elimination tournament against No. 7 Hawaii (26-9).
UCLA went 12-3 against the other seven teams in the field, which is the best head-to-head mark.
The top seed is UCLA's biggest rival, Southern Cal, which beat the Bruins 3-2 in Saturday's Pac-12 final.
Justine and Sponcil -- both of whom are 5-foot-10 -- were central in that match as well. The Bruins and Trojans were tied 2-2 before Justine and Sponcil lost to Sammy Slater and Terese Cannon.
It was a dramatic final match. For virtually the entire third set, all the other matches had concluded. All eyes were on Court 2.
"That was the most pressure Sarah and I faced all season," Justine said. "There was a ton of people surrounding our court, cheering. You could feel the immenseness of the match."
Even though they lost 21-18, 16-21, 15-12, Justine said there were some valuable moments in the match in terms of team chemistry.
At one point, Sponcil grabbed Justine's hand and said, "Let's show them what we've got!"
The loss, Justine said, "just fuels my fire to beat [Southern Cal] if we play them again."
The Bruins, who feature Canadian twins Megan and Nicole McNamara at the No. 1 spot, are 2-3 this season against the Trojans, dropping the last three.
Sponcil and McNamara are 25-4 on the season, including two head-to-head losses vs. USC. Justine is known as an intense competitor. But her fierceness may not quite rise to the level of Sponcil, who admits she was "frickin' furious" about some of the officiating in Saturday's loss.
"Sometimes things fly out of my mouth that shouldn't," Sponcil said. "There were some calls I disagreed with, and, like any athlete, I can get caught up in the moment.
"[Southern Cal] is a fiery team, too, and I wasn't going to let their energy overpower us. That's not going to happen."
Sponcil, a senior from Phoenix, is "the best setter in the country," according to UCLA coach Stein Metzger. She has the credentials to back up that claim.
Playing indoors in high school, Sponcil was a back-to-back Arizona Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year from 2012-2013. Playing both indoors and outdoors at Loyola Marymount, she was the West Coast Conference's MVP in 2017.
But when LMU coach Tom Black and his staff left to run the Georgia Bulldogs program, Sponcil transferred to UCLA, where she was paired with Justine in 2018.
Sponcil clicked immediately with Justine, a native of Seattle who was raised in the Northern California city of Chico.
"Playing beach volleyball isn't a big thing in Chico," said Justine, a junior. "The closest beach is four hours away. To get games, I would play with old men on man-made, dug-out sand courts."
She no longer struggles to find matches, which are plentiful on the beaches of Southern California, and her chemistry with Sponcil has been just as easy of a fit.
Both of them are highly intelligent and also delightfully goofy.
The proof is in the photos.
"'I have an idea,'" Justine said, recreating her thought process for a team photo shoot. "'Let's pretend Sarah is a robot, and I'm screwing in her head.' It was the perfect post for finals week when everyone's brains were fried."
Sponcil has also produced numerous Instagram posts in which she performs handstands on her travels to cities such as Moscow, Tokyo and Vienna.
As a sophomore in high school, Sponcil bought a unicycle from a pawn shop and learned to ride it. Justine boasts of her ukulele talents.
As for their academic abilities, Justine is majoring in physiological science and aspires to become a doctor.
Sometimes things fly out of my mouth that shouldn't.Sarah Sponcil
"I love learning about the human body, and I want to shoot as high as I can for medical school," the 20-year-old Justine said. "If volleyball can fit in with that, I will allow it, but I'm focused on the goal of being a doctor. Volleyball is second."
Meanwhile, Sponcil, a 22-year-old majoring in sociology, has a post-graduation plan of ... more volleyball.
She and former Southern Cal standout Kelly Claes have partnered in an effort to make the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In fact, soon after the NCAA championships wrap up this weekend, Sponcil and Claes will fly to Brazil to begin in earnest the effort to qualify for Tokyo.
Sponcil will miss her graduation from UCLA in pursuit of the Olympics, and that's not surprising to anyone who has seen her diving for volleyballs. In photos, she is diving as often as she is standing.
"It's awesome, laying out and giving your heart and soul, just hoping you can get a finger on the ball," Sponcil said. "It's deflating for the other team when you can fly through the air and get the ball up and hopefully win the point."
Whether it's artistic or not, getting that final point will be all that matters this weekend in Alabama.