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TCU rises to No. 1; busy college beach volleyball weekend; Miami hosts royalty

Beach volleyball is in full swing as the college season heads into its third weekend and the pro season gets underway in Miami. In this look at what will be a busy stretch, we start with a dive into new No. 1 TCU, see who else is hitting the NCAA sands, and see who is playing in the pro events in South Florida.

Happy Horned Frogs

TCU’s athletic program has enjoyed a whirlwind of success during the 2022-23 school year, and beach coach Hector Gutierrez is proud that his undefeated Horned Frogs have hopped aboard for that giddy ride.

Football went bonkers with a dizzying climb up the rankings that resulted in a spot in the College Football Playoff and a thrill-a-minute 51-45 victory in the national semifinals over Michigan, before eventually falling far short in the title game against Georgia.

TCU women’s indoor volleyball earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament in Coach Jason Williams’ first season, and picked up a first-round victory over Washington. The men’s basketball team is 20-11, ranked No. 22 nationally heading into the Big 12 Tournament, and looks to be locked into a bid to the Big Dance, projected as a No. 5 seed by bracketology guru Joe Lunardi.

This week, another compelling headline greeted TCU (8-0) when it hit No. 1 in the AVCA beach-volleyball poll for the first time in program history. Heady stuff, indeed, for fans of the private school in Fort Worth, Texas.

TCU had been ranked No. 2 before — for six consecutive weeks, actually, during the 2022 season — but the top rung had eluded the Horned Frogs. That is, until victories this weekend over top-10-ranked Florida State (No. 2 at the time) and Georgia State leapfrogged them from third to first in the second rankings of the young beach season. TCU went 4-0 during the Tampa Tournament in Florida, winning 40 of 43 sets.

“Starting with football this year, we’ve been on this big wave athletically,” Gutierrez said Wednesday. “But it’s not just football or us [in beach volleyball]. We’ve got tennis, men’s basketball, women’s soccer, rifle, equestrian — a lot of teams doing really well. As coaches, we see what is going on here every day. It’s not a surprise for us that pretty much every single sport is doing well.

“As a school, we’re really proud because we are only 9,000 students. If you compare it with other schools, it’s really small. But you can tell how the school is behind the athletic department, and that they believe that athletics are a really important piece of the university. The school has given us all of the tools to be successful. The good thing about TCU is that they just don’t look out for football or basketball, they look out for every single athlete.”

Hector Gutierrez coaching Ana Vergara, left, and Maria Gonzalez for TCU at Mapes Beach in 2022/of Andy J. Gordon photo

If Gutierrez’s squad wants to stick around for more fun at No. 1, it needs to clean up some unfinished business this weekend in its Horned Frog Challenge in Fort Worth. On the docket Friday and Saturday are matches against Texas A&M-Kingsville (4-3) and Southern Mississippi (6-3), but far more importantly, two against fourth-ranked and undefeated LSU (9-0), the team that knocked the Horned Frogs out of the NCAA Championships in 2022. Dropping a 3-2 decision to LSU forced TCU to settle for a seventh-place finish at the NCAAs in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and a final poll ranking of No. 6, despite a nation-leading 39 wins and 21 victories over Top 20 foes. The Horned Frogs are 3-9 all-time against the Tigers.

“To be ranked No. 1 means we are doing the right things. It means what we are doing works,” said Gutierrez, who has guided his team to the NCAA Championships in each of the last two seasons. “But we are not done yet. It’s great to be No. 1. I’d much rather be on the top than the bottom, for sure. But this is just the beginning. Week 2. We need to keep eyes on what’s coming up in the season, especially for nationals, to keep working to be No. 1 at the end of the year. And not to be distracted by being No. 1.”

The Horned Frogs have been strong up and down the lineup, but particularly stellar at the No. 1 pair. Spanish nationals Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, returning first-team AVCA All-Americans, swept their four matches in Tampa, outscoring the top duos from Florida State and Georgia State by a combined 84-63 total. Alvarez, a 6-2 senior, and Moreno, a 5-7 junior, were honored by the CCSA as the Pair of the Week for the fourth time in their careers. They stand at No. 3 in CBVB’s rankings of pairs in the No. 1 flight, but likely have their work cut out for them against LSU’s top-ranked Ellie Shank and Kylie Deberg.

Alvarez and Moreno already have demonstrated the talent and skill to represent their native Spain on the international level, having taken fourth in the European Championships in Munich last summer, a competition won by Latvia’s Tina Graudina (former USC star) and Anastasija Samoilova, the fourth-place finishers in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

“I’m really excited for our girls to play LSU, particularly Daniela and Tania, because that is going to be a great match for them. That should be a really high level of beach volleyball,” Gutierrez said. “Finishing fourth in the European Championships, [while] playing for the first time, was a huge accomplishment. No one expected that [as the No. 17 seed], but things just clicked. Now we’re seeing that here, a different level of confidence. Something changed last summer. Before they knew they could do well, but now Daniela and Tania are realizing just how well they can do with time.”

Big NCAA beach weekend

Five “name” volleyball programs will join host Hawaii for the Queen’s Cup round-robin competition Friday through Sunday on Queen’s Beach in Honolulu. The No. 9-ranked SandBows (7-3), No. 11 Cal (6-2), No. 14 Washington (4-4), Texas (making its program debut for Coach Erik Sullivan), Nebraska (7-1) and Oregon (2-7) will battle in 15 matches over the three days. Familiar faces on the roster who contributed to Texas’ 2022 NCAA indoor title team are Asjai O’Neal, Madisen Skinner, Molly Phillips, Emma Halter and Keonlei Akana.

Led by AVCA/CBVB National Pair of the Week Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple, No. 2-ranked USC (6-0) will host a section of the Battle for Los Angeles Invitational. The double defending NCAA champion Women of Troy jumped two spots in the AVCA poll after topping four ranked Pac-12 foes last weekend, including a 3-2 victory over archrival and then-No. 1 UCLA. Also on the sand in Merle Norman Stadium on Saturday and Sunday will be No. 7 Stanford (9-3), No. 16 Long Beach State (2-6), Concordia-Irvine (4-6) and Cal Poly (2-9 while playing a daunting schedule).

Third-ranked UCLA (9-1) will host another Battle for Los Angeles section at Mapes Beach. No. 6 Grand Canyon (6-2), No. 13 Florida Atlantic (7-1) Long Beach and Cal Poly also will play in six matches at the venue in Sunset Canyon on Saturday and Sunday. Florida Atlantic’s Julie Honzovicova and Ashleigh Adams were just honored as Conference USA’s Pair of the Week.

No. 12 Stetson (5-3) leads the field in the Carolina Challenge in Columbia, South Carolina. The Hatters — coming off weekend losses to ranked Florida State, Grand Canyon and Georgia State — along with No. 19 South Carolina (5-4), Tulane (6-1) Stephen F. Austin (1-7) and UNC-Wilmington (1-0) will converge Friday and Saturday on the Gamecocks’ Wheeler Beach facility.

No. 17 Pepperdine (3-1) will play four matches in its Malibu Invitational, which runs Friday through Sunday. Also competing are No. 18 Arizona (5-2), North Florida (5-3), UAB (5-4) and San Francisco (0-5).

On Wednesday in Atlanta, No. 6 Georgia State hosted its Day of Duels that included fourth-ranked Florida State, No. 20 Coastal Carolina and Mercer. Sun Belt Conference Pair of the Week Destiny White and Aliisa Vourinen continued their effective play in the fifth flight as the Sandy Panthers topped Coastal Carolina 4-1, winning their match against Emma Gonzales-Lucy Campbell 21-11, 21-15. But then Georgia State was buzzsawed by FSU (12-1), with every flight won in a sweep by the Seminoles, who also logged 5-0 victories against Mercer and Coastal Carolina. The Sandy Panthers (8-3) blanked Mercer, and the Chanticleers (6-5) also topped the Bears (0-11) 3-2.

Utah’s Grace Andrews flies in for the dig during last weekend’s Pac-12 South Invitational/ Will Chu Photography

Pro beach hits Miami

The first tournament in the innovative Queen & King of the Court series on Miami Beach opens with qualification rounds in both genders on Thursday. Some familiar names in the “Q” include Americans Hagen Smith and Billy Kolinske, Kyle Friend and Timothy Brewster, Megan Rice and Ann Osborn, as well the duo of Josh Binstock of Canada and Dave Palm of the USA.

The main draw revs up in earnest on Friday. Of utmost interest will be how well beach legend and three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, making a comeback at age 44, looks while teaming with active digger Zana Muno. In the five-team Group C with Kerri and Muno are Canadian Olympians Brandie Wilkerson and Melissa Humana-Paredes. Group A features Americans Kelly Reeves and Jessica Gaffney, while Group B includes Americans Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn, Brazilian veterans by way of Orlando Larissa and Lili Maestrini and the McNamara twins (Nicole and Megan) from Canada.

The men’s field on Miami Beach is highlighted by the new American pair of Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk in Group A; ageless Phil Dalhausser and new partner Troy Field, and Italian veterans Daniele Lupo and Enrico Rossi in Group B; and Americans Taylor Sander and Taylor Crabb and the spectacular duo from Qatar, Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan, in Group C.

To follow the Queen & King of the Court Miami Beach competition, go to:

Next weekend on Miami Beach (March 16-19), the AVP Tour opens its season with a Pro Series event. A huge question mark was answered on Wednesday by the tour’s owner, Bally’s Corp., when prize money of $62,500 in each draw was revealed eight days out of the event. The Pro Series carried the same payouts in 2022. The three tournaments in the top Gold Series will have purses of $150,000 per gender and the four third-tier Tour Series will pay out $25,000, all of which mirror last season.

TV/streaming has yet to be announced.

Entries in the AVP Miami Beach stop also hit Wednesday, with several notable omissions, largely because the international Beach Pro Tour tournament in La Paz, Mexico, will be played on the same weekend.

The AVP women’s entries are topped by Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon, Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles, Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes, Larissa and Lili and Geena Urango and Carly Skjodt. The men’s draw looks a bit deeper. It includes the Taylors (Crabb and Sander), Dalhausser and Field, Chase Budinger and Miles Evans, Billy Allen and Andy Benesh and Jeremy Casebeer and Seain Cook.

The Volleyball World Challenge-level tourney in La Paz carries purses of $75,000 in each draw. Nine women’s teams from the United State have hit the entry list, including red-hot Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, fast-rising Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss (featured this week on SANDCAST), Megan Kraft and Emily Stockman, Hailey Harward and Kelley Kolinske and Quiggle and Schermerhorn. Four American duos are listed in the men’s draw: Bourne and Schalk, Theo Brunner and Trevor Crabb, Evan Cory and Logan Webber and Smith and Kolinske.

Freelance journalist Larry Hamel is a former Sunday sports editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and founder and coach of the Gold Coast Spikers beach-volleyball training program. Hamel lives in Chicago and plays both indoor and beach volleyball.