GULF SHORES, Ala. – Pepperdine’s Kelley Larsen only had one wish for her 22nd birthday: a national championship.
Larsen’s wish came true when the No. 2-seeded Waves defeated No. 3 Florida State in a dramatic 3-2 match on day two of the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship to claim the program’s second title in three years.
“Best birthday ever,” an elated Larsen said. “Couldn’t be better, it’s perfect.”
“I don’t even know what to say,” Larsen’ s partner Kellie Woolever said. “I’m at this point where I’m just like, this is overload and so much is coming at me, but I’m stoked.”
“It’s feels so great, especially coming off getting second last year,” Larsen said. “Coming here and taking care of business, it was a close one, but we pulled it out and it feels so good.”
“I’m really proud of my team,” Pepperdine coach Nina Matthies said jubilantly. “I think there’s more athletic teams than we are, but I think as a team we’ve been really steady.”
“We played amazing, and that’s a really good team,” Florida State coach Danalee Corso said. “Our number one goal has always been the team championship.”
This year’s title match introduced a staggered schedule that featured the No. 4 flight kicking things off, shortly followed by the No. 5 flight.
In the title match, Pepperdine jumped out to an early lead when Sophie Asprey and Victoria Adelhelm defeated Florida State’s Sierra Sanchez and Hailey Luke 21-19, 23-21 in No. 5 flight.
The Seminoles quickly evened the score when their No. 4 pair of Melanie Pavels and Julie Brown defeated Emily Cook and Katie Messing 21-14, 24-22.
With the match knotted up at 1-1, the No. 1 and No. 3 pairs took to the courts.
Florida State’s Sarah Wickstrom and Fatma Yildirim quickly dispatched Delaney Knudsen and Caitlin Racich 21-19, 21-15 in the No. 3 flight to give the Seminoles a 2-1 advantage.
Meanwhile, a fierce battle ensued between the schools’ top pairs on Court 1.
Pepperdine’s Larsen and Woolever edged Jace Pardon and Aurora Davis 21-19 in the first set, but Pardon and Aurora fought back, taking set two 21-11.
The Seminoles fought valiantly with a national championship on the line, but Larsen and Woolever pulled out the victory in the third set 15-13, forcing a deciding match in the No. 2 flight.
“I trust those two wholeheartedly,” Matthies said of her No. 1 pair. “They’re just really steady. They play with enthusiasm. They play easy and free together, and that’s the beauty of that team.”
“I honestly thought that our one’s could pull it off because they were playing so amazing, and we crushed them in that second set,” Corso said.
“I think we really just stayed calm,” Larsen explained. “We had a rough second game, and both of us kind of didn’t play our best. In the third game, we’re like this is a new game. We stayed calm. That’s how play our game, we don’t get frustrated or frazzled or anything.”
In the deciding match of the dual, Pepperdine’s Lara Dykstra and Becca Strehlow faced off against Stephanie Pellitteri and Kristina Pellitteri.
After being taken to the brink by the Pellitteri sisters, Pepperdine No. 2 pair squeaked out the 24-22 win in set one. Dykstra and Strehlow would seal the victory with a 21-17 win in set two to claim the national championship for Pepperdine.
“Honestly right now I’m still a little speechless,” Strehlow said. “We were excited it came down to us. At match point I turned to Lara and said, ‘We got this. I’ll get you a pass.’ And then everything went blank, I couldn’t heard anything except for Lara.”
“It means the world to our team and our program,” Dykstra said. “This is what we work all year for, and what our program strives for is to back at number one. I was just thinking let’s do this for team; let’s bring it home for the team. I knew we were going to win.”
“Becca and Lara stayed real calm,” said Matthies. “Sometimes they get real competitive, and when you get competitive you want perfection. Perfection doesn’t necessarily win volleyball matches. I thought they stayed within themselves. I thought they played the game and didn’t panic. That’s a lot of pressure right there. They’re both really great competitors and have been really good players.”
“On the coaches committee, we were wanting to create drama, and we did,” Corso said in reference to the staggered start format of the championship match.
The win marks the birth of a sand volleyball dynasty in Malibu. The Waves have now won two of the first three AVCA Sand Volleyball National Championships and finished as the runner-up in 2013.
“It’s cool that we won the inaugural year in 2012,” Larsen said. “We lost last year, but we came back ready to play and got it for our second title.”
“This means a lot to be a part of this because we want to help the school and program keep building and keep being successful in this emerging sport,” Dykstra explained. “We want girls to come to Pepperdine to play beach volleyball and to be sand volleyball champions.”
“We want to win, and have this be a premiere sport at Pepperdine,” Matthies said.
The Waves took to the Gulf of Mexico to celebrate their national championship victory.
“It was awesome,” Matthies said. “I love the Gulf of Mexico!”
Corso believes her team’s experience is yet another building block for the success of the Seminole program.
“This is our third time here, and it just felt different because we felt more ready,“ Corso explained. “Ultimately, I think Pepperdine is a just a little taller than us. They’ve got a little more arsenal. We’re right there, and we knocking on their door. I’m super proud of the girls because they fought hard, and they trained hard all year.
“I’m proud of second. I think we did better than what we did last year and that’s what we’re trying to do. I think in due time we’re going to take that trophy home.”
Pepperdine and Florida State didn’t play each other during the regular season, but the two teams became quite familiar with one another in two tournament match-ups this weekend. Pepperdine defeated the Seminoles 4-1 in their meeting on Friday.
In the semifinals earlier that day, Pepperdine topped USC 3-2, while Florida State easily defeated Hawai’i 4-1.
Choking back tears of joy, an emotional Matthies reflected on her team’s success.
“You’ve got to enjoy these moments,” Matthies said. “They don’t come all the time so it’s pretty nice.”