NOT ZUMA BEACH — This is not the story I was supposed to write.
I’m not supposed to be sitting at my table in Hermosa Beach, watching the rain mist down on an unusually empty Pacific Coast Highway. I’m supposed to be at Zuma Beach, where I’d be watching Pepperdine host Cal Poly, UCLA, and Georgia State.
It was an event replete with storylines: Could Pepperdine find its footing after a rough start? Could Cal Poly continue to climb the ranks with an upset of UCLA? Would UCLA’s youngsters continue to develop and thrive, staving off challenger after challenger? Would Georgia State be the next in a growing line of East Region teams to throw its name into the NCAA Tournament hat?
All of those would have been fun to write, and more than possible to have happened. Yet none of them will be written. Neither, sadly, will any of the other budding storylines that were spreading across beach volleyball.
The coronavirus, and the NCAA’s reaction to it, has forced the season to come to an early end. It is brutal for everyone. Brutal for the schools. The athletes. The coaches. The fans. It feels especially brutal for it to happen this season. It is, of course, natural to look at this year and view it as one unlike any other. Just three weeks in, had enough teams proved themselves capable to make a case for an expanded NCAA Tournament? To 12, maybe 16 teams? Maybe. We’ll never know.
Was it enough for LSU and Florida State to show the West that the East, while not as deep, is just as strong at the top? We will not get to see what was surely to be a frenetic finish, with the Tigers and Seminoles powering the East while a mortal UCLA, rising Cal Poly, and strong Hawai’i attempted to keep the NCAA Championship in the West, where it has been every year since it became a sanctioned sport.
It is more than possible that we’ll still get to see the likes of this brilliant senior class. The NCAA has granted a blanket red-shirt, as it should, but who is going to stay? Hopefully some, but surely not all. Perhaps, then, it is farewell to Kristen Nuss and Claire Coppola of LSU. Molly McBain of Florida State. Margherita Bianchin and Fedrerica Frasca of Florida International. Savvy Simo and Lily Justine of UCLA. Deahna Kraft and Carly Skjodt of Pepperdine. Iya Lindahl and Mima Mirkovich of Cal. Morgan Martin and Amy Ozee of Hawai’i. Sunniva Helland-Hansen and Carly Perales of Stetson.
Maybe it is farewell. Maybe it is not.
We do not yet know.
And that is the most tantalizing aspect of this bizarre season: We won’t know the answers to any of these questions. Not yet. So now we must wait. At the rate that college beach volleyball is developing, these questions will answer themselves in some form or other. But not now. Not at Zuma Beach or Mapes Beach or Merle Norman Stadium or Gulf Shores.
The parity we witnessed in the brief but fun 2020 season is only the beginning of such a spread of talent. It is difficult to imagine another year in which a single team is as dominant as UCLA was these past two seasons, and USC the three years before that. The grassroots talent pipeline is simply too big for one school or coast to hoard it all, and that trickle-down effect has produced a deeper, richer game at the college level.
For now, it is farewell to the upsets. Farewell to Houston Baptist over Stetson. Farewell to the 11-1 Florida Atlantic team that was finally reversing its fortune from so many close calls a year ago. Farewell to the East Region’s powerful rise, and LMU’s and Cal Poly’s challenge to the established West Region order.
There will be no celebratory sprints into the teal, Gulf Shores water. Or singing and dancing on bus rides home.
But there are still beaches. There is still volleyball.
Just not the kind that we were supposed to have.