MALIBU, California – Gigi Hernandez had seen graduate transfers before. She knew the cycle, how easy it is to get the hopes up about a dominant indoor player using a final season of college eligibility on the beach for Pepperdine, only to see that indoor player on the unfamiliar surface of the sand. In Hernandez’s experience, they aren’t quite the same on the sand as they are on the hardwood.
So when she heard that Carly Skjodt — an All-American, All-Big Ten outside hitter at the University of Michigan, was transferring to Pepperdine — Hernandez, the Waves’ court two defender last season, did her best to temper her expectations.
“I don’t know if my bar for fifth-years is super low, but I feel like when they’ve come in it’s like ‘Oh, this might be tough,’ ” Hernandez said. “This past summer, before I played with Carly, I was like ‘She’s going to be so good! I’m so pumped, so pumped.’ ”
Most everyone at Pepperdine feels the same, save for the 6-foot-1 Skjodt. As humble as she is talented, she has her own reservations. She is, after all, an Indianapolis native, far from the Southern California beach volleyball hotbed in which she’s currently competing.
“Yeah,” she said at Zuma Beach in October, “there’s not much beach volleyball.”
But there was plenty of it indoors, where she thrived. In 2014, she was named PrepVolleyball’s National Senior Player of the Year, the Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year, All America. She won a state title, a silver medal at AAU Nationals, earned an offer from Michigan, where she’d commit as a sophomore.
In Ann Arbor, she continued to excel, starting as a freshman, picking up seven double-doubles as a sophomore, being named co-captain as a junior. She knew, then, that only one more year of volleyball wouldn’t be enough, that even if she lacked beach experience, she was going to give it a shot, and she was going to give it a shot where, whether she’d start or not, she’d have a good chance of winning.
At the end of her junior year, she took an official visit to Pepperdine, one of only two schools in the country to appear in every national-championship tournament. At the time, the Waves were competing in the WCC Championships, which they’d go on to win. It was there that coach Marcio Sicoli introduced her to Hernandez, a relationship that would blossom quickly, setting the foundation for what could be a partnership this upcoming spring.
“She’s getting it so fast,” Hernandez said. “She’s not a stubborn person at all. If you tell her to do something she’s like ‘OK!’ If you tell her something and she doesn’t get it, she’s not just going to say ‘Yeah, yeah I get it.’ She’s going to ask you to explain it in a different way. Her first instinct is always to do it right. If she doesn’t get it, she wants to do it right.”
Skjodt won’t admit she’s picking it up as quickly as Hernandez likes to say. Even as an outside hitter, where ball control is valued as much as hitting, the wind still presents issues when it comes to passing and setting. And despite playing maybe the most active position indoors, the constant mental game on the beach is still a new concept.
“Just how thoughtful it is compared to indoor, how many little things you’re thinking about every given second of every play,” she said. “It’s really interesting to me and I think that would be tough for anyone to pick up until you actually play. Just having a running conscious the entire play –- in indoor I had played so long that I didn’t have to think: ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ I just did what I had trained myself to do. Getting used to that is the biggest thing.”
And it is that very challenge that she enjoys the most. Her growth curve had, while not stopped, leveled off in indoor, to the point that much of it was so ground into memory that it was subconscious. In the past five months in Southern California – she moved in July – she’s experienced a steep learning curve.
“It’s totally different, but it’s so much fun,” she said. “Now that we’re in 20 hours, it’s really cool. The little changes they make, I can see myself making those changes. So it’s been really exciting, I have so much growth every single day. It’s so much fun.
“That’s what I was so excited about: learning a new sport. Everybody’s just like ‘Oh, you’re just playing volleyball again’ but it’s so different and so much fun, just learning the little things. Marcio the other day, he said ‘With the wind coming this way, you have to serve into it,’ which is something I would have never thought of.”