She was nicknamed Rocket, a women’s volleyball star with a 42-inch vertical leap, a two-time USA Volleyball Olympian who played professionally in Japan, Switzerland and Italy.
And Rita Buck-Crockett was also a success on the beach, where she played for six years.
So no wonder that not only does the fifth-year coach have eighth-ranked Florida International heading in the right direction, she has a beach volleyball team that features players from 10 countries.
“It’s a multi-cultural team, so it’s open-minded,” said her assistant, Carlos Galletti. “People understand the different accents we have. I’m from Brazil and 80 percent of the team is from different countries. It’s great blend. It’s a great mix, I love that.”
What’s not to love? FIU is 8-5, but its only losses are to top-ranked UCLA, twice to No. 2 USC, and to No. 5 Pepperdine and No. 6 Hawai’i. Last year, FIU made it to the NCAA Championships for the first time.
All that will be on display this weekend for the FIU Surf & Turf Invitational on Miami’s South Beach. The Panthers, the hosts for a loaded field, play No. 10 Stetson, No. 16 Grand Canyon and No. 4 LSU on Friday, and then Tulane, No. 3 Florida State and No. 1 UCLA on Saturday.
Among the other matchups in the tournament include UCLA playing LSU on Friday and then facing Florida State on Saturday.
It’s certainly a chance for FIU to make another move upward. Among those defeats were three by scores of 3-2 in the East Meets West Invitational on Manhattan Beach earlier this month. Five of the players on the team also play indoors, so they didn’t train on the beach in the fall.
“To be honest it makes our peak a little bit later for those guys, because they’re still getting into it, so we’re not really at 100 percent until about the end of March,” said Buck-Crockett, also the indoor coach. “We’re still working on getting our sand legs.”
So since this is the end of March …
“I think we’re close,” she said. “I think we’re real close. Sometimes we just all have to be on the same page. And that’s the hardest part, because there are so many different cultures, there are so many different nationalities.”
FIU, a school of 54,000 in Miami, Fla., is unusual in that it promotes international culture. The beach volleyball roster alone contains students from Canada, Austria, Cyprus, Brazil, Norway, Puerto Rico, Slovenia, Italy, Slovakia, and, of course, America.
“Even in coaching. There’s my style, there’s Carlos’ style, there’s (Adriana Behar’s) style,” Buck-Crockett said. ”If we can all get in one box then we’ve got it. And we’re very close now. We’re very, very close to that.
“Once you’re patient, and you trust the process, then you become a champion. That’s something we’re still working on.”
Buck-Crockett, who was an AIAW All-American at the University of Houston, won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics. She was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2011. On the beach, her career spanned 79 events over six years, with a WPVA win at Will Rogers State Beach in 1989 with Brazilian Jackie Silva and career earnings of $89,397.
Speaking of Brazil, one of her seniors is Mariana Dal Pozzo, who is from Toledo, Brazil. And talking about being close, in FIU’s last big match, a 4-1 loss to USC in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago, the No. 1 pair of Federica Frasca, a junior from Rome, and Margherita Bianchin, a senior from Venice, lost to Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante 16-21, 27-25, 15-13.
The lone victory against USC was at No. 5, when Lina Bernier, a junior from Puerto Rico, and Erica Zembyia, a senior from Cyprus, won in two.
Before coming to FIU, Buck-Crockett, 61, had been a high school coach in Florida, was the coach at Iowa for six seasons, and served as an assistant at Florida State.
One of her assistants who knows her style is daughter Marrita Crockett-Moulton. She’s coached with her mom since 2004.
“She’s a great boss,” said Crockett-Moulton, who has been an FIU indoors assistant the past two years and helped her mother on the beach with FIU from 2012-16.
“She likes to coach her players like pros. She wants them to play freely, doesn’t want them to be rigid, she wants them to flow,” Crockett-Moulton said. “Of course she’s really into technique and basic training, but when it comes down to the game and strategy, she wants them to be able to be creative and make decisions on their own.
“Her coaching style allows them to do that. She doesn’t keep them in a box. She’ll ask them, ‘Hey, what could you have done better there?’ She gets the players to ask the questions and fix their own mistakes, helping them, but she makes them think.”
“I like her because she’s strict, but at the same time, you can have fun with her,” the Italian said. “I think it’s a really good balance, if you’re not scared of her and at the same time you can joke with her, but when we have to perform, we have to perform. It’s a good balance, she’s a good coach.”
One thing that might have made the head coach lighten up a bit was the arrival last October of her grand-daughter. What’s more, Natasha Moulton is an apparent lefty.
“It just changes your whole outlook on life,” Buck-Crockett said. “Of course I love my daughter to death, she’s the apple of my eye, and then to see her being a mom, with her child, I just want the relationship that I have with her to have the same that she’ll have with her daughter because it’s just beautiful to watch. She loves her so much, and her dad loves her, she’s a very loved baby. It’s just great.”
“She’s the greatest grandmother,” Crockett-Moulton said. “The players joke that since Natasha’s been born, she’s gone softer. She’s such a great grandma. She loves Natasha, and is happy that she gets to see her every day. She gets that smile from Natasha, and she just melts. She takes Natasha shopping, and she’ll come back with three bags of new baby clothes and toys.”