The college beach campaign is halfway home. In this weekly report coach Kristen Rohr lends insight on Grand Canyon’s road to a potential postseason bonanza. Meanwhile, Nebraska has finished its beach schedule and coach Jaylen Reyes discusses his program’s place in the Huskers’ big picture. Earlier in the week we recapped last weekend’s top results.
The big gathering this week is in Fort Worth, where No. 1 TCU (16-0) is home for No. 6 Grand Canyon, No. 9 Cal, No. 15 FIU and Texas, which we featured last week.
Second-ranked USC is off until next week’s East Meets West Invitational, while No. 3 UCLA plays host to No. 8 Hawai’i on Wednesday. UCLA is also in the East Meets West.
Fifth-ranked LSU is home for a tournament that includes No. 4 Florida State, Washington, Southern Miss, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Spring Hill. LSU and FSU square off on Sunday morning.
The Stetson Invitational includes No. 17 Stetson, No. 14 Florida Atlantic, FGCU and Coastal Carolina. Emma Grace Robertson and Jillienne Cangelosi of FAU were honored as Conference USA’s pair of the week.
Hawaii, No. 12 Long Beach State and Cal Poly headline the Big West Challenge in San Luis Obispo, California; and the West Coast Challenge in Santa Cruz, California, sees No. 7 Loyola Marymount and No. 18 Pepperdine, among others, in action.
Gathering for College of Charleston’s Creekside Beach Blast will be the host Cougars, UNC Wilmington and Erskine. UNCW’s Gabby LaPata and Sadie Sharkey were named Sun Belt pair of the week.
Lopes have “unfinished business”
Grand Canyon, which jumped a spot to No. 6 this week, seems to be a lock for a second consecutive trip to the NCAA championships, representing rarified air for a school that sits in the middle of a desert, nowhere close to an ocean beach.
The Lopes (12-4) can gain more traction this weekend, when they travel to the Fight in the Fort event that will include duals on Friday and Saturday against top-ranked TCU (16-0), California (12-3), Florida International (7-6) and upstreaming debut program Texas (0-10).
“We approach every weekend as an opportunity to get better and also to figure out what we need to keep working toward getting us into position to compete for a conference championship and a national championship,” Rohr said.
“I know we are going to play No. 1 this weekend, and Cal, and FIU, and Texas, so we have four really good competitions. But this isn’t much different from what we experienced in our first three weekends. We scheduled really tough early on, and saw USC, UCLA, FSU, Cal Poly, Loyola Marymount. We wanted to push ourselves. We wanted to be challenged every weekend. These are the types of teams that will expose what we need to work on, and tell us how to get to that conference championship and that national championship.”
The possibility of a significant breakthrough victory over a top-ranked team naturally has raised the stakes.
“We have yet to beat a team ranked ahead of us this year,” Rohr noted. “TCU is the next team we play that is ranked ahead of us, so we absolutely want to come in super strong, having all five pairs playing their best volleyball on that day.”
Grand Canyon has victories over nationally ranked Long Beach, Georgia State, Stetson and Pepperdine and has lost 3-2 to No. 2 USC, 5-0 to No. 3 UCLA, 4-1 to No. 4 Florida State and 4-1 to No. 7 LMU. The Lopes, who were ranked seventh as an independent for virtually all of the 2022 season before finishing No. 9, joined the CCSA this season. Rohr has instituted some midseason lineup changes among the top flights that she hopes will pay dividends when tournament times roll around.
“We just swapped our 1s and 2s defenders,” Rohr said. “It was just time for a change and we wanted to try some new things. We gave it a shot this past weekend when we were at home and really liked it. Now we have Alli Hansen and Abbie Hughes in the 1s. Alli was our 2s blocker last year and she had a phenomenal season playing with Allanis Navas. They also won the pairs West Coast championships this past fall.”
Hansen, a 6-foot junior, is 12-3 this season and 47-18 over her career. Hughes, a 5-9 senior, is 82-30. Ahead for them in the dual against the top-ranked Horned Frogs on Saturday is a match with Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, who were handed their first loss of the season last weekend in Miami. Moreno was hampered by a slight abdominal issue and was held out of the two duals on the second day as a precaution, according to TCU coach Hector Gutierrez. On Friday, Hansen-Hughes will face FIU’s Rachele Mancinelli and Milica Vukobrat, the pair who beat Alvarez-Moreno.
Rohr, who has coached the Lopes since 2016, lavished praise on her other diggers who have switched spots in the lineup.
“We literally had three defenders who could have been in our 1s,” she said. “Anaya Evans is playing in our 3s right now. She was our 1s defender for the last two years, so that is a really good problem to have. Allanis is now in our 2s with Samaya Morin, and Samaya’s only a sophomore. Samaya has overcome a very significant knee and has improved a ton.”
Grand Canyon finished 26-7 last season, but was among the eight teams ousted in the single-elimination first round of the 16-team 2022 NCAA Championship. The Lopes were knocked out 3-2 by George State, a team they had defeated during the regular season. The first-round survivors then advanced to double-elimination competition. However, the format has been changed to 16-team, single-elimination for the 2023 tournament May 5-7 in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
“We have some unfinished business,” Rohr said with conviction. “We have returned a lot of the athletes who competed [in the NCAA Championship] and we learned a lot there. We had a lot of youth on our team last year, some people who were competing in college for the first time, some people who were going to the national championships for the first time. We didn’t get [to play in] a conference championship tournament. That weekend before [the nationals] when everybody else was competing in a high-pressure situation, we were practicing because we weren’t in a conference. I felt as if that was a significant disadvantage for us.”
The format change might serve to level the playing field a bit, eliminating the opportunity for a team to bounce back from a loss.
“Yes, it’s really hard to beat a good team twice, particularly on the same day or the same weekend,” Rohr said. “[Single-elimination] puts a whole new level of pressure. The new format is going to be different for everyone, but it’s part of our sport now, and we are excited for the challenge.”
Huskers conclude milestone-setting season
Unlike its storied women’s indoor volleyball juggernaut, Nebraska carries no NCAA title aspirations for its beach team. Coach Jaylen Reyes’ women wrapped up their 2023 season last weekend, playing a schedule that included mainly smaller programs, and finished with a 15-5 record (the best in school history) and a six-dual winning streak.
The Huskers’ most noteworthy victories came during their trip to Hawaii against Oregon of the Pac-12 and longtime indoor rival Texas. Nebraska’s young beach squad of 12 was all crossover indoor athletes.
“We want to compete in all the matches that we play in. Obviously, ‘compete’ looks different than what we do in indoors,” Reyes said. “We don’t necessarily schedule the same way. We only played until last Saturday [March 18] and now our season is done. We use this as a building tool to develop overall all-around volleyball players and to work on specific skills. Some of the skills are similar to indoor and some are different.
“[Unlike] the specificity of indoor volleyball, beach volleyball allows middles to serve, pass, set [and] allows setters to hit. It allows liberos to hit, sometimes even block depending on what their team is. It gets them outside of the comfort zone of just doing their task indoors. Now in beach, they have to work with a specific partner who might play the same position as them or might not. [The objective is to] train them in skills they might not do each and every day indoors.
“We also used this season as a team bonding time,” added Reyes, who is Coach John Cook’s top assistant with the indoor team, responsible for its defense and its liberos, as well as serving as recruiting coordinator. “In the last two or three weeks, we’ve been on the road. The schedule isn’t as strenuous as the indoor season and the girls are allowed to spend time with each other, sometimes even doing non-volleyball things.”
Might the time come when Nebraska ratchets up its level of expectation for beach volleyball, and branches off a program that by design and schedule would compete for a national title?
“I’ve gotten asked that question frequently, especially because our girls had a lot of success this year,” Reyes said. “I don’t know the answer to that. The balance we have is good. Obviously, I’m the head beach coach here, but first I’m the indoor assistant to Coach Cook. I love the way our schedule and my specific schedule is, so I guess selfishly, I hope we never split it. [Playing beach] is really helpful to our indoor girls. So if we were to split [the rosters] completely as a lot of the school have, our indoor players might not reap all of the benefits this beach season gives us.
“If we were to really go for it and try to win a national championship, realistically, we would split it 100%. We’ve had this program running pretty much just like this for 10 years now. I would say for [the program] to change and for us to split, the Big Ten Conference would have to add beach volleyball.”
Nebraska is the only school in the Big Ten that sanctions a beach-volleyball program. An obvious impediment for most members is that beach volleyball is a warm-weather sport and the Big Ten is a cold-weather league, although UCLA and USC will join the conference in the 2024-25 school year.
“A lot of Big Ten schools, when I’m out recruiting, will ask me about our [beach] program, how we go about it,” Reyes noted. “I feel like if some of the schools wanted to do [add beach as a sport], they would have done it by now. But as for us, I believe that Coach Cook really enjoys his indoor team being able to go through this process, so unless his hand is forced, I would bet that we are going to keep it this way for the time being.”
Players who stood out for Nebraska on the sand included decorated All-American libero Lexi Rodriguez, a 5-foot-5 sophomore who was the National Freshman of the Year indoors in 2021; Ally Batenhorst, a 6-foot-5 sophomore outside hitter; and Andi Jackson, a 6-foot-3 freshman with a significant upside.
“Lexi is such a good volleyball player overall and she controls the ball so well,” Reyes said. “She passes the ball on the money and she passes the ball up to the net for [6-foot-4 sophomore partner] Bekka Allick to hit. Lexi just understands volleyball and picks up volleyball super well, which for us was important, because as a team, we were kind of learning on the fly.”
Batenhorst and Jackson possess intriguing size and skills.
“Ally might want to even take a fourth or fifth year to play beach volleyball somewhere after she’s done playing indoor volleyball here at Nebraska,” Reyes opined. “She has a long body, and has the build of a beach player, for sure. Ally got pretty good at the end of the year.
“One girl who jumped out at the end of the season was Andi, especially when we started playing duals outside. She’s kind of brand new to the sport of volleyball, and this was her first experience playing beach. Andi’s another long body, but jumps a ton, even in the sand. She’s also a really quick study. I believe that she can be an international-level volleyball player whether she wants to do beach or indoor.”