NCAA beach season begins this week. This is second of two looks at the national picture. Tuesday we previewed the best teams in the West. Now the best teams in the East:

2020 was strange in more ways than most of us can, or care to, count. One of the stranger occurrences — for the brief period that was the 2020 collegiate season — was this: The East Region had supplanted the West as the queens of NCAA beach volleyball.

It was LSU at the top, a school in Baton Rouge, where the closest natural beach is more than a hundred miles away, in Mississippi. Two spots behind was Florida State. Combined, the Tigers and Seminoles were 24-3, and LSU had logged back-to-back wins over the two-time defending national champs, the Bruins of UCLA.

It was the first time the Tigers had been ranked No. 1 in the school’s history.

The East, you could say, was the new West, which has been responsible for every National Championship win since the sport began competing for them.

Virtually everyone is back from those LSU and Florida State teams, and with FIU, TCU, and Stetson hauling in talented new classes, and FAU retaining the majority of its talent from a 10-1 2020 season, the East could make 2021 even stronger than its unprecedented predecessor.

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Kristen Nuss, left, and and Claire Coppola led LSU in 2020/A-Game photo

LSU — The Tigers are plucky underdogs no more. No longer can LSU claim to be the Cinderellas, the blue-collar kids who were under-recruited and missed by the real beach volleyball schools. No, no.

LSU has every argument to be considered the best team in the country.

All 10 starters are returning from the team that finished 2020 as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.

Every single one.

Kristen Nuss – if there’s an award for grit, she gets it, every year – returns with her 100-plus wins, alongside longtime partner Claire Coppola. Together, they own just about every record there is to own at LSU.

They’re back.

It’s fair to wonder how many records Taryn Kloth would also own had she played four years of beach. Kloth’s collegiate career began indoors, at Creighton, before transferring to LSU two (full) seasons ago. In 2020, Kloth and Kelli Agnew won 14 straight matches, doing so in 28 consecutive sets. Only one team managed to get within two points of Kloth and Agnew in any set.

They’re back.

On court two, Jess Lansman and Sydney Moore won 10 of 14 matches, including victories over Hawai’i and UCLA.

They’re back.

On court three, Toni Rodriguez and Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope compiled a 10-2 record. They also logged victories over UCLA and Hawai’i.

They’re back.

All of that talent returns, while coach Russell Brock hauled in three top-30 freshmen in Ellie Shank, Amber Haynes, and Brooke Bluetruch, as well as grad transfers Grace Morgan (Rice) and Hannah Brister (Northwestern State). Brister has joined the indoors team with an eye on eventually playing beach.

It could be time for new milestones to be met, new records to be written.

LSU is an East region underdog no more.

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FSU’s Alaina Chacon keeps her eyes on the ball/Tim Britt photo

Florida State — The transfer portal has become one of the quickest ways for a program to elevate itself from mediocre to good, good to great, great to national-championship contender to national-championship favorite. Florida State was already a title contender — and then it picked up Torrey Van Winden, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Cal Poly.

The addition of Van Winden, whose tremendous indoors career was cut short by concussions, adds a big, physical presence to a lineup that returns nine starters from the team that began the 2020 season 12-1, making the Seminoles one of four central favorites to win in Gulf Shores, alongside LSU, UCLA, and USC.

Returning are the tough-as-nails ball control team of Alaina Chacon and Molly McBain, as well as Madison Fitzpatrick, Maddie Anderson, Kate Privett, Payton Caffrey, Liz Walters-Leiga, Keara Rutz and Morgan Chacon.

All that, and Sara Putt is healthy and back in the lineup, as is Avery Poppinga, who is returning from a back injury. It wouldn’t be surprising to see freshmen Raelyn White, Caitlin Godwin, and Caitlin Moon make spot appearances in the starting lineup as well.

So if there’s one problem on coach Brooke Niles’ hands this year, it might just be where to put all of this talent, and whom to put it with (and how to get sleep with now three young boys at home).

The type of problem any coach –- and mom — would want to have.

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Rita Buck-Crockett coaching the FIU beach team

FIU — It’s going to be strange, to see Florida International without Italian Margherita Bianchin. Making her debut in Miami in 2017, Bianchin went 30-6, and became a court one mainstay, alongside fellow Italian Federica Frasca. Bianchin, however, is off to play professionally, already winning a gold medal in a one-star in Lithuania.

The only other loss, however, is court two starter Ali Denney.

Aside from Bianchin and Denney – significant losses, yes – coach Rita Buck-Crockett returns eight starters from a team that began 2020 8-1, including a huge win over Florida State. Buck-Crockett is enamored with her incoming freshman class, highlighted by Paige Kalkoff and 6-foot-3 Giada Bianchi.

Where’s Bianchi from? You guessed it: Italy.

One Italian leaves, another fills in her place.

FIU rolls on.

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Stetson’s Carly Perales spikes/Tim Britt photo

Stetson — Stetson is quickly becoming the International University of North Florida. While Rita Buck-Crockett has obviously established a strong international pipeline at FIU – international is in the school’s name, after all – Hatter coach Kristina Hernandez is building a program boasting as much talent from overseas as it does domestic.

While court one defender Sunniva Helland-Hansen has returned to Norway to begin her professional career – and potentially vying for a 2021 Olympic spot – Hernandez has reloaded from all over the map. Returning is Brazilian Ana Costa, who has been voted the ASUN pre-season Player of the Year, while graduate transfers Aleksandra Stadnik and Shahar Rosner have been added from Poland and Israel, respectively. Kyce Martins, a Brazilian who competed with Costa mostly on court two in 2020, is back as well, while the rest of the lineup hails from Sweden (Rebecka Dahlgren), Norway (Oda Stray Homme, Katinka Krahn), France (Yasmin Kuck), Canada (Quinci Birker), Australia (Rebecca Ingram).

The most notable American returner is Carly Perales, a senior who partnered with Helland-Hansen for the majority of her career on court one.

Florida Atlantic — One of the most delightful stories of the year in 2020 was the resurgent Florida Atlantic Owls, who charged out to a 10-1 start, including victories over Georgia State and Stetson. Then, of course, COVID happened, and thus, too, did FAU’s potential return to Gulf Shores.

Erica Brok and Mackenzie Morris did their best to prove that the 2020 start was no fluke, making the finals of a stacked AVP Next in Clearwater, in a field that included mostly professionals from the quarterfinals on down. Returning for coach Capri Grotowski is also Savannah Pesante and Ellie Austin, while UAB transfer Kenley Adams, who competed on court one, will be an excellent addition.

All told, nine starters are back from the 10-1 2020 team, and freshman Alivia Orvieto could make her way into the lineup, as will Adams.

With FAU being a legitimate contender for Gulf Shores, the East is only getting deeper.

Georgia State — After LSU and Florida State last year, there was a mass of five or six teams battling for the next two best spots in the East. Georgia State, at 10-3 before the stop, was right in the mix of them, picking up wins over FIU and TCU, proving that it had the talent to make it to Gulf Shores.

Nine starters return from that team, including Eden Hawes, Maddy Delmonte, and Olivia Stasevich. Coach Beth Van Fleet always does a phenomenal job in the talent development department, so she could have at least one of her three new freshmen, including top-30 recruit Payton Crenwelg, ready to compete in the starting lineup before too long.

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TCU coach Hector Gutierrez talks with Cassie House in a match against Cal Poly in March/Sharon Ellman photo

TCU — My pick for the pre-season most improved team this year is TCU. Coach Hector Gutierrez had a solid team in 2020, starting 11-4 before the stop, and that was with a freshman, Daniela Alvarez, holding her own on court one.

Alvarez is now joined by her partner on the FIVB, fellow Spaniard Tania Moreno Mateeva, and Gutierrez also added Puerto Rican Maria Gonzalez, top-30 recruit Logyn Hinds, and USD graduate transfer Megan Jacobsen.

You never know how new faces will assimilate to new teams and cultures, but Gutierrez has no shortage of talent in Fort Worth.

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