NCAA beach volleyball’s relationship with the indoor game makes the sport unique in the world of college athletics.
In the beginning, indoor coaches led almost every college beach team, and dual-sport athletes filled the rosters of newly created beach programs, spending their spring in the sand while competing indoors in the fall. Today, six years after the NCAA officially sanctioned beach volleyball in 2012, the rosters of the top programs consist mostly of beach-only athletes, but the phenomenon of grad transfers keeps the connection between the two sports strong.
According to NCAA eligibility rules, an athlete has five years to complete four seasons of competition in any one sport, and the clock starts as soon as he or she enrolls full-time in college. That means, after four years of indoor, many athletes still have between one and three semesters of eligibility remaining (depending on whether or not they redshirted) that they can use to play beach volleyball.
Seeking a new ending: Athletes choose to play beach volleyball and pursue a masters degree in their fifth year for a variety of reasons. Some are hoping they’ll discover that they have what it takes to make it on the professional beach volleyball tours. Others are simply putting off the time when they’ll have to move overseas to compete professionally indoors. Still others might have already been eyeing an advanced degree and eagerly take advantage of the opportunity earn a scholarship toward that end.
North Carolina middle blocker Taylor Fricano was looking for a different ending to her collegiate career.
Fricano’s final indoor season at North Carolina didn’t exactly play out as she had hoped. Since joining the UNC team as a transfer from Wisconsin in 2015, she had seen her Tar Heels get better and better every season, and 2017 was predicted to be the best yet.
But then injuries started to pile up and Carolina far underperformed, finishing tied for eighth in the ACC after being unanimously picked No. 1 in the preseason conference poll.
A last-minute decision by Fricano to join the first-year Missouri State beach volleyball program this spring meant that her collegiate career didn’t have to end with UNC’s straight set loss to Duke on November 24.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that my senior season was not going the way I wanted it to,” Fricano said. “We had a lot of injuries, a tough schedule, a really tough preseason schedule, and with all of the unforeseen challenges that didn’t go our way, I definitely had (this feeling) like, I really want to end this chapter of my life on a better note.”
Colorado State middle blocker Alexandra Poletto spent most of her senior season riding the bench thanks to nagging tendonitis that appeared after a shoulder surgery in February 2017. But after watching her former teammate Adrianna Culbert use her grad year to play beach at South Carolina, Poletto knew there was more to come after she graduated from CSU in December. This spring, she’s taking the sand for three-time defending national champion USC.
Unlike many indoor grad transfers, Poletto, a Toronto native, does have a background in beach volleyball, including winning a gold medal at the U21 Canadian Beach Nationals in 2013 and representing her country at the U19 World Championships in 2014.
“I always knew that I was going to play beach after I was done playing indoor, and this just seemed like a great opportunity to get started back into the beach world and also offered an exciting way to do it, rather than just training by yourself,” Poletto said.
A second rookie season: Chloe Reinig hadn’t played much beach volleyball since entering a few tournaments on Chicago’s North Avenue Beach with Lauren Carlini when the pair was in their early teens, so she felt like a freshman all over again when she joined the Loyola Marymount beach volleyball team as a grad transfer last fall.
The four-year starting outside hitter at Michigan State is also sharing a room with fellow grad transfer Cierra Simpson in a house occupied by other LMU athletes. It’s the first time she hasn’t had her own room since her freshman dorm assignment at Michigan State.
“It’s humbling because it is kind of that situation (of being a new player) but I have a completely different outlook now,” Reinig said. “I’ve grown so much since my freshman year that the experience is completely different now and I have a positive outlook on it.”
Reinig played her final season of indoor in 2016 and was just minutes away from signing a professional contract with a team in Puerto Rico when she reconsidered. She needed a few more classes to finish her degree, and she decided graduating was more important than kickstarting her professional career.
As she finished up her degree last spring, one of the MSU assistants asked Reinig if she’d be interested in playing sand, because beach coaches were asking around about transfers, and without much hesitation she said, “Heck yeah.”
The choice to transition from indoor player to beach player in less than a year, sometimes only a couple of months, is quite an ambitious one, and one that grad transfers need a hearty supply of humility and patience to attempt.
“The setting for me has been really hard,” Fricano said. “Factoring in the wind, your hips have to face where you’re going to set, and for whatever reason that sounds super easy, just face where you’re going to set, but it’s hard.”
Reinig and Poletto both highlighted the difference in speed between indoor and beach volleyball.
“It’s difficult to be simple and take your time,” Reinig said. “[In beach,] your approach has to start slow, and it’s about conserving your energy so that you can use it to burst across the sand.”
“It sounds weird, but it’s ‘slower’ is what we say, ‘be slow to the ball.’ That was a huge concept that I still am learning,” Poletto said. “In indoor, it’s very fast-paced and you want to try to speed up the ball and get to it early. In beach, it’s be slow and have more of a rhythm when you play.”
Reinig admits she thought that after a few months it would get easier, but moving in sand is still a challenge.
“When I first got here, I was like I can’t wait to walk on the sand and it feels like a sidewalk, but it always feels that hard,” she said. “You can’t control the sand, you can’t control the way it moves or sometimes the way it moves you, but that’s just a challenge of the game.”
“An emerging trend:” Only truly special athletes can successfully make the indoor to beach transition as a grad transfer and challenge for a place among the nation’s elite. And yet, every year beach coaches send out their feelers, hoping to land a handful of grad transfers to fill out their rosters.
“There is an emerging trend of transfer fifth-year student-athletes entering beach volleyball programs,” Tulane beach coach Wayne Holly said. “It will interesting to see the comparison of programs growing from the bottom with freshman, experienced in the beach game, to programs adding substantially to the top with seasoned athletes who have a single season to learn the beach game.”
Relying on players so new to the outdoor game can be a risk, but some programs have found indoor transfers to be a good source of height and physicality. South Carolina, for one, has had great success with this strategy. After transferring from Colorado State where she was a setter/opposite, Poletto’s former teammate Culbert earned a spot in South Carolina’s No. 1 pair and was selected to compete at the USAV Collegiate Beach Pairs Championship at the end of the 2017 season.
In total, six grad transfers were among the elite group of 48 athletes selected to compete in USA Volleyball’s Collegiate Pairs Championships last season: Leigh Andrew (UNC indoor to Florida State beach) Adrianna Culbert (Colorado State indoor to South Carolina beach), Brittany Howard (Stanford indoor to Pepperdine beach), Amy Neal (Texas indoor to TCU beach), Chelsea Ross (MTSU indoor to Georgia State beach) and Katie Zimmerman (Wichita State indoor to South Carolina beach).
One thing all grad transfers, regardless of their eventual success, or lack thereof, in the sand, bring to college beach teams is leadership and an attitude of hard work. Beach volleyball has a reputation of being very relaxed, but indoor players, especially those like Poletto, Reinig and Fricano who played for elite teams in some of the most competitive conferences in the country, come from a very different environment.
“I was a captain at Michigan State, so I have a lot of leadership skills and in that way I feel like I can still help the younger players here and help them grow as they help me grow,” Reinig said. “We have three other grad students here, too, so it’s a cool dynamic of (the younger players) helping us and we can help them in other, maybe off-court ways, and I think our team is really mature in that way.”
Fricano expected to take a back seat at Missouri State, deferring to the girls who had been at MSU for years as members of the indoor team, but after only a few weeks, she found herself name co-captain.
“I definitely did not come into this program thinking, ‘Well, you’re the oldest, you’re going to have to lead this team into the promised land.’
“That was the farthest thing from my mind,” Fricano said. “I just kind of stayed my course and took what I’ve learned from North Carolina and Wisconsin and applied my work ethic, applied my standard of excellence that I have been taught, and I guess through my own accountability, I influenced others.”
Fricano, Reinig and Poletto each decided to join NCAA beach teams for a different reason, and they have different goals after they exhaust their eligibility. Poletto will likely keep training on the beach and start competing for Canada on the FIVB tour. Fricano plans to go overseas and play indoor for a few years. Reinig is already job hunting and hoping to stay on the West Coast and pursue a beach volleyball career.
But for the next two and a half months, all three athletes, and the many other grad transfers across the country who are playing beach volleyball for the first time, have a very similar goal: First, find their sand legs, and then help their team earn a spot at the NCAA Collegiate Volleyball Championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama, May 4-6.
Grad transfers competing in 2018
|Name||Previous School||Current School|
|Alexandra Poletto||Colorado State||Southern California|
|Amy Held||Northern Iowa||Georgia State|
|Annika Van Gunst||Georgia Tech||Georgia State|
|Brindl Langley||Florida Southern||Boise State|
|Brooke Sassin||Kansas State||TCU|
|Cadie Bates||Duke||South Carolina|
|Carly Scarbrough||Fresno State||Florida Atlantic|
|Chloe Reinig||Michigan State||LMU|
|Devon May||Simon Fraser||UAB|
|Emily Hardesty||Texas A&M||LSU|
|Erin Byrne||Susquehanna||Florida International|
|Haley Howell||Siena||San Francisco|
|Ivy Reynolds||Lindenwood||Missouri State|
|Jordan Abalos||New Mexico State||Arizona|
|Julia Topor||Boston College||San Francisco|
|Katie Pyles||Nova Southeastern||Grand Canyon|
|Lauren Anderson||Utah State||Florida State|
|Lauren Kenny||Mercyhurst||Florida Southern|
|Leah Perri||Clemson||South Carolina|
|Lydia Dimke||Creighton||South Carolina|
|Mallory Wagoner||Indiana||North Florida|
|Sabrina Blackwell||Cal||San Francisco|
|Shelby Holmes||Arkansas State||Central Arkansas|
|Taylor Fricano||North Carolina||Missouri State|
|Teegan Van Gunst||Georgia Tech||Georgia State|
Updated February 26: Jordan Anderson from UCLA to Washington and Kimmy Gardiner from Oklahoma to Washington