Sporting her signature cowboy hat, Pepperdine coach Nina Matthies was all smiles after her No. 2-seeded Waves defeated No. 3 Florida State in a dramatic 3-2 match on May 3, day two of the 2014 AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships, claiming the program’s second title in three years.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Matthies said jubilantly. “I think there are more athletic teams than [us], but I think as a team we’ve been really steady.”
Matthies started wearing her rose-emblazoned cowboy hat when the Waves (18-1) won the inaugural AVCA sand championships in 2012. Pepperdine has reached the championship match the last three years, its only tournament loss occurring against Long Beach State in the 2013 title match, which happens to be the only time Matthies coached her team without her cowboy hat.
“We’ve lost one regular season match in three years,” Matthies said with a grin, referring to the team’s 4-1 loss to the University of Southern California on March 25 of this year. “I like my team, and we play well.”
Led by its top pair, Kelley Larsen and Kellie Woolever, Pepperdine finished the double elimination tournament 3-0, dispatching USC once and Florida State twice.
The win was extra special for Larsen, who celebrated her 22nd birthday with a national championship.
“Best birthday ever,” an elated Larsen said. “Couldn’t be better. It’s perfect.”
“I don’t even know what to say,” Woolever stated. “I’m at this point where this is an overload and so much is coming at me, but I’m stoked.”
“It 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.”
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. “On the coaches’ committee, we were wanting to create drama, and we did,” Corso said of the scheduling decision.
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 the 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 came back with a vengeance, 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 team. “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 ones could pull it off because they were playing so amazing, and we crushed them in that second set,” Florida State coach Danalee 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 we play our game, we don’t get frustrated or frazzled or anything.”
In the deciding match of the team final, Pepperdine’s Lara Dykstra and Becca Strehlow faced off against Stephanie Pellitteri and Kristina Pellitteri of FSU.
After being taken to the brink by the Pellitteri sisters, Pepperdine’s 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 after the game. “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 hear 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 be 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.”
The win marks the birth of a sand volleyball dynasty in Malibu.
“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 go for our second title.”
“This win means a lot 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.”
The Waves rushed into the Gulf of Mexico to celebrate their national championship victory.
“It was awesome,” a soaking wet Matthies said. “I love the Gulf of Mexico!”
Corso believes her team’s experience is yet another building block for the success of the Seminoles’ program.
“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.”
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.”
• • •
The next day, day three of the sand championships marked the return to glory for another California squad.
It was a breezy, beautiful day with the sun beaming down from above, when the University of Southern California’s top pair, senior Kirby Burnham and freshman Sara Hughes, defeated Hawaii’s Karissa Cook and Brittany Tiegs 21-15, 21-13 in the championship match of the pairs tournament.
“We were high on adrenaline,” an elated Hughes said. “We wanted to power through and dominate.”
Burnham repeated as national champion, winning the pairs tournament with fellow USC All-American Stevi Robinson last year, while Hughes got her first taste of a national title.
“It feels really good to be a back-to-back national champion, especially in an exciting sport like this,” Burnham said with a smile.
“Kirby was so important, especially playing behind her because I’ve never had such a big block before,” Hughes said about their season together. “She helped me so much establishing my defense and being a role model. Being here at the championships before, she knew what to do. We did it together, and we’re so excited.”
And the learning wasn’t one-sided. “Sara is an amazing beach player and has so much experience,” Burnham said. “She helped me a lot throughout this entire season.”
From the outside, pairing a freshman and senior as a program’s top pair may seem outlandish, but for Trojan coach Anna Collier, it is part of her master strategy for building USC’s sand volleyball program.
“A lot of people didn’t agree with me on [the pairing],” Collier explained. “They were like, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t put a freshman on a No. 1 team.’ But I needed to get this [program] rolling. I needed to have this senior, who is a national champion, teach this freshman.”
Three seasons into the sport, it appears that Collier, who was named the 2014 AVCA National Coach of the Year, may be on to something.
“I believe you always have to have great experience in your lowerclassmen because if you don’t get them that experience, who’s going to do it?” said Collier. “The seniors are leaving. I always want somebody who’s a freshman or sophomore to have that experience. As Sara grows, she can then be the senior and teach another freshman.”
After this weekend Hughes has plenty of experience moving forward. After being eliminated from the team competition in the semifinals, the top team from USC cruised through the pairs competition, never dropping a set.
Collier said this year’s pairs championship was important because it will help to establish USC as a premier sand volleyball school.
“SC’s building a strong program, and we’re using only sand players,” Collier said. “Maybe we don’t have the parity throughout the entire team yet, but we do definitely have some dominant players. It’s really fortunate for us that we have that so we can bring home at least one national championship.”
“USC always wants to be on top,” Hughes said. “We have that target on our back, but we’re going to keep pushing through and get that national championship.”
“If we can keep building this [connection] with the seniors and the freshmen, then we could be that team to beat in the future,” Collier said.
Originally published in July 2014