Editor’s note: This story kicks off our NCAA college beach previews. Stories about the top 12 teams in the nation follow, a day-by-day lead-in into the start of the 2020 season.
It was a week or so before NCAA beach volleyball practices began in earnest, and John Mayer, head coach of the resurgent LMU Lions, was talking about gravitational shifts.
A full on gravitational shift, he said, is approximately what it felt like it would take to beat some of the best court-one pairs in previous years. There is no scientific way of measuring such a claim, but it also might not be the most inaccurate of assessments. Peruse the history of NCAA beach volleyball, and there has always been at least one, if not two, court-one pairs that are so dominant that Mayer says “it’s like ‘Man, what are we supposed to do?’ ”
There have only been four beach championships that have been sanctioned by the NCAA. The first two were won by USC, the next two by UCLA. USC won in 2016 and 2017 with the pair that will go down as one of the most formidable teams in college sports as Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes finished their careers as college partners with a 147-4 record. That included the 2015 AVCA national championship the Trojans also won with Claes and Hughes as the No. 1 pair.
But then they graduated, and the question of who would fill that void at No. 1 was answered resoundingly, immediately, by not one, but two pairs. USC trotted out Latvian blocker Tina Graudina, pairing her with junior Abril Bustamante. Across town at UCLA, coach Stein Metzger would slot in Canadian twins Nicole and Megan McNamara.
Here it may be worth noting that every player mentioned thus far is more likely than not to make an Olympic Games. Graudina already has. This past summer, after she and Bustamante were named the VolleyballMag.com national Pair of the Year, Graudina and partner Anastasija Kravčenoka won the Olympic qualification tournament in Haiyang, China, and now Graudina will take a redshirt season from USC as she prepares for Tokyo.
The McNamaras, meanwhile, went 111-30 in their four years as Bruins, with all 141 matches coming on court one. They have since played six FIVB events and established themselves as the third-ranked team in Canada.
All of this, however, begs the question: Who’s next?
In the brief history of NCAA — and the AVCA before that — beach volleyball, never has that question been asked without an obvious answer.
“When you walked into matches like playing against Tina and the twins,” Stetson coach Kristina Hernandez offered, “you’re like ‘OK we might not win at that one, let’s just X that one out, see where else we can get a win.’ ”
It’s illuminating that Hernandez would be all right with admitting that, too, for she has one of the best returning top pairs in the country this season in Carly Perales and Sunnivan Helland-Hansen. In three years together, Perales and Helland-Hansen have gone 78-27 and helped to establish an East Coast school of less than 5,000 as an NCAA championship contender.
“It’s open now,” Hernandez said. “ … especially for USC, who’s really young.”
That question applies to not just USC and UCLA, but to every West Coast team that made the NCAA Championship a year ago. Pepperdine and Cal Poly will likely have familiar faces at No. 1 in Brook Bauer and Tia Miric, respectively, but holes will need to be filled in the graduations of Heidi Dyer and Crissy Jones.
“All of the powerhouses are searching,” said Florida State coach Brooke Niles. “I’m excited to see it. I think there’s going to be a lot of upsets back and forth.”
If there is ever going to be a year that a power shift may occur, from the traditionally strong West Coast to the still-developing East Coast, this may be it. While the Southern California programs are rebuilding at the top courts, the top four East Coast teams return their top pairs.
Niles is bringing back her 2019 No. 1 pair in Alaina Chacon and Madison Fitzpatrick, who finished 14-7 on court one — they also competed on other courts as well — but have all the talent to become one of the best East Coast pairs. Florida International returns a longtime No. 1 pair in Italians Margherita Bianchin and Federica Frasca, who finished 20-5 on court one in 2019, ranked sixth in the country at No. 1.
But the pair that is most likely to become 2020’s version of the McNamaras, or Graudina and Bustamante, resides west of Tallahassee and East of Southern California, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Ninety-one times have Claire Coppola and Kristen Nuss won matches in their three years thus far at LSU. Only 19 matches have resulted in a loss. Their past two seasons have resulted in them being named the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association Pair of the Year, and in 2019 their 33 wins set the program record for most in a season.
“They’re finally leaving,” Niles said, laughing. “Thank goodness.”
Their only four losses last year? To the McNamaras and Graudina and Bustamante.
Coppola and Nuss have one final season at the top court for LSU. They have a shot at becoming the first non-West Coast pair to be the best No. 1 in college beach volleyball.
A gravitational shift to defeat remains to be seen, but that’s the fun part of this 2020 season: For the first time in NCAA beach volleyball, there are no sure things.
“I think this is the stage where the younger girls are coming out and they have a lot to prove,” said Florida State junior Chacon. “It’s just awesome because you have the opportunity to make a name for yourself right now. The spots are open.”