This is the fourth of 12 stories previewing the top teams competing in NCAA beach volleyball this season:

There is a fun little exercise Rita Buck Crockett likes to do at the end of each Florida International practice. It’s called “Ninja of the Day” and, if she’s being candid, Margherita Bianchin and Federica Frasca basically aren’t allowed to win it.

The qualities that look exemplary in others are simply what is expected of the two Italians.

“When you’re thinking about who deserves it — I’m saying this because they just got it — but we expect so much of them, they’re so good, they work so hard, they almost get overlooked that they’re so good,” Buck Crockett said.

“They’re our captains, they’re very humble, and I’m already going to miss them. I’ve had them for so long and it feels weird that at some point they do have to graduate.”

This year, though Buck Crockett is sad to acknowledge it, will be the last season for Bianchin, the 6-footer from Venice, and the 5-9 Frasca, a product of Rome.

For three years they’ve anchored the No. 1 spot for FIU and have compiled records of 30-8, 26-8, and 22-6. Just once, however, has FIU made the NCAA Championships, in 2018 after going 22-10. Not that the Panthers haven’t come devastatingly close every other season that Bianchin and Frasca have been at No. 1.

In 2017, FIU finished 24-15, losing to Florida State in the final of the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association tournament after beating LSU. A victory over the Noles likely would have pushed the Panthers into the top eight nationally and the NCAA Championship.

In 2019, they went 17-11, their only losses coming to USC, UCLA, Hawai’i, Pepperdine, LSU, Florida State, and one to Stetson. All of the aforementioned programs made it to Gulf Shores, and many in Miami believe the Panthers should have made it in over Stetson, whom FIU beat twice.

And that’s exactly what Buck Crockett, also the FIU indoors coach and a member of the 1980 and 1984 USA Olympic teams, is preaching to her women this season: The NCAA selection process is a subjective one. Make the season so good they can’t ignore you.

“The goal is ‘You have to make it. You have to prove you’re good enough and not wait for anyone to vote for you,’ ” Buck Crockett said. “Our goal and motivation is always to be one of the top eight teams that makes it to nationals but on top of that motivation is that we have to be better than just eighth or we may not make it.”

This FIU team is better equipped than maybe any other, even the 2018 team that did make it, to do just that.

Buck Crockett said that Bianchin and Frasca are playing at an entirely new level, while the coach is thrilled about the additions of German sophomore Sophia Brandstetter, Gina Lipscomb, a freshman from Yorba Linda, California, and Emma Erteltova, a 6-3 sophomore from Slovakia. They will be an excellent complement to returning starters Abbie Hughes, a sophomore from Mason, Ohio (14-8 in 2019); Ali Denney, a senior from Jupiter, Florida (15-13); Lina Bernier, a senior from San Juan, Puerto Rico (21-6); and Madison Besterfield, a junior from Tampa (9-7).

“I believe we gained more good players than we had before,” Buck Crockett said. “Those that were trying to work their way into the lineup are a year better. Everyone can compete and I think that’s the best thing. The ones that are non-starters don’t slow down the ones that are starting. They’re pushing everyone to be better.”

Essentially, she’s overseeing a roster of Ninjas of the Day. And while Bianchin and Frasca may be rare winners of the award, they will be the fulcrum to this FIU team that’s looking to reverse what could be viewed as snubs in 2017 and last year.

“I expect us to do really well because it’s our last season,” Frasca said. “We have a lot of experience in beach volleyball and I’m excited because we reached the peak in college beach volleyball and this is the time to show it and also just enjoy the ride, have fun and give it all on the court.

“This is our last chance to do something good so I’m super excited.”

Next up: No. 8 Loyola Marymount

Previously published:
No. 10 Stetson
No. 11 South Carolina
No. 12 Cal Berkeley
The top spot in NCAA volleyball is up for grabs

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