Women's Volleyball Rides the Wave of United Longtime Companionship

(Aubrey Yeo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Kelsey Angus (Daily Bruin reporter)

Two weeks are all a freshman volleyball player gets before she's thrown into fast-paced Division I play.

That's 14 days to adjust to college life, get to know teammates and learn the team's system. The transition isn't easy.

But for Savvy Simo, it was a little easier.

The freshman defensive specialist grew up playing club volleyball with the younger sisters of two of her current teammates, senior middle blocker Jennie Frager and redshirt junior setter Ryann Chandler, at WAVE Volleyball Club in Del Mar, California.

"At first it was funny, I was like 'Oh my gosh, Ryann is setting me and her younger sister Brynn used to set me," Simo said. "It honestly wasn't that weird of a transition because they're so similar to their older siblings."

Coach Michael Sealy said that the presence of faces Simo knew and trusted helped her adjust, but Frager and Chandler are familiar faces to more than just Simo.

Frager, Chandler and junior outside hitter Reily Buechler have been playing volleyball together for nearly a decade at both WAVE and Torrey Pines High School.

Now, all four are on the court together at the same time, using their past experience and shared background in high school at the Division I level.

Left: Savvy Simo (left) didn't have much experience playing with Ryann Chandler, but she played with Ryann's little sister Brynn (right) at Wave, making it that much easier when Simo came to UCLA. (Courtesy of Savvy Simo)
Right: (From left to right) Reily Buechler, Jennie Frager and Ryann Chandler played together both at Torrey Pines High School and Wave Volleyball Club during their high school years – before they all became Bruins. (Courtesy of Jennie Frager)

Chandler has been playing club volleyball with Buechler since she was in fifth grade, with Frager joining them two years later.

When Sealy changed his rotation to the newest version of the 6-2 earlier this season, he had to make a choice of whether to pair Frager with Chandler or freshman setter Kylie Miller.

Chandler worked with Frager when she first learned to set during their freshman year of high school seven years ago, so the choice wasn't a tough one for the head coach.

"Well it was obvious, because they've played together since they were 12 or 13 years old," Sealy said. "In the old system we had it so that (Chandler and Frager) were playing with each other as much as possible, and in the system we're using now it worked out so that they get to play with each other 100 percent of the time."

The head start afforded to Frager and Chandler began with elite-level play during high school.

"We were lucky that (WAVE coaches) threw us right in to college speed, college systems," Frager said. "We were running a lot of fancy things at a young age which was really cool, and made the transition to college a lot easier."

Brennan Dean, head coach of Torrey Pines and director of WAVE, said that he was able to coach at the highest level of volleyball even though his athletes were just high schoolers.

"It pushes you as a coach to where you want to make sure that you're not holding the athletes or the team back," Dean said.

Wave coaches frequently come to UCLA women's volleyball games to visit their former players. (Courtesy of Jennie Frager)

Simo played with Buechler at Torrey Pines in Buechler's senior season, but this year marks the first time that all four girls are playing on the same team.

"It's super surreal the way it all worked out," Frager said. "It definitely wasn't planned to be that way but I think we just got really lucky and all the stars aligned that we ended up together, but it's so much fun – all the parents love it."

Playing at UCLA with her high school teammates definitely wasn't in the original plan for Chandler.

Ryann Chandler didn't come straight to UCLA out of high school like Jennie Frager did. Chandler instead spent a semester as a libero Pepperdine before coming to set for UCLA. (Courtesy of Jennie Frager)

The setter was initially committed to play libero for Pepperdine but returned home within a semester. While back in San Diego, Chandler attended MiraCosta Community College and helped out at WAVE, but didn't plan on returning to the sport.

Women's volleyball rides the wave of united longtime companionship

"I wasn't in a super-happy place with volleyball, so I think it was a good time for me to take a step back from volleyball and focus on school," Chandler said. "I wasn't playing or anything – just with my health – and I never really thought I was going to play volleyball again."

It was Brent Hilliard, one of Chandler's coaches at the club, who first approached her with the goal of encouraging her to return to the sport by telling her that he was looking to fill a setting spot on his University of San Diego team.

Chandler visited UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and UCLA, but by the end of her weekend in Westwood she knew she was going to be a Bruin.

"It wasn't necessarily a volleyball decision or a friends-decision, it was (asking myself) if I was to not have anyone or not have volleyball, would I be happy?" Chandler said. "It was icing on the cake just having (fellow WAVE alumnae) here. It made the transition so much easier for me."

(Courtesy of Jennie Frager)

But Chandler's return to volleyball wasn't easy. She played as a libero at Pepperdine, so it had been nearly two years since she had played as a setter.

Reily's father Jud Buechler, a former assistant coach at WAVE and a three-time NBA champion, took Chandler to the gym every day and worked with her to regain all the muscle mass that she had lost from not training for so long.

"Ryann was the best volleyball player I've ever coached," Jud Buechler said. "She was too good of a volleyball player to just let go, and I felt like I just wanted to mentor her and know that in 20 years from now I think that she would look back and just be disappointed if she just stopped playing."

Chandler joined the UCLA squad in 2015, a move Frager and Reily Buechler made a few years earlier after seeing the success of a prior generation of WAVE players at UCLA.

Recent UCLA alumni Kelly Reeves, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Karsta Lowe and Karly Drolson, another Torrey Pines alumnus, also spent their formative years in the WAVE practice tent.

Buechler, Chandler and Frager's club team was paired up with Reeves' team for an unofficial big and little sister team program in their 13s and 16s seasons, respectively.

"We would always look up to Kelly and Karsta because they were the epitome of what we wanted to be," Buechler said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, these WAVE girls are doing so well, and they got a national championship ring. And wow, that's what I want to do.'"

This season the Bruins currently hold a share of lead in the Pac-12 standings and are poised for their best conference finish since the 2011 championship season.

An added motivation throughout Pac-12 play is the presence of familiar faces on the other side of the net – Colorado's Katelyn Cuff, California's Savannah Rennie and Maddy Kerr all hail from Torrey Pines and WAVE as well.

"When we play it just gives it a more competitive edge, like 'Oh I want to ace Maddy,' or, 'Oh I want to dig Savannah,'" Chandler said. "We're all still so close and all plan to live together after we graduate."

Although this is the only year all four girls will be together as Bruins, the WAVE to UCLA pipeline is set to continue. WAVE's website lists UCLA as the destination for two of its high school players - one in 2018 and the other in 2020.

"I just always looked up to UCLA volleyaball and I thought it was an amazing place," Chandler said. "I know so many young girls as well; they see all of us from San Diego and they all want to come to UCLA now."

This post was updated on Nov. 9 at 2:45 p.m.

(Courtesy of Jennie Frager)