TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This was the exact type of moment Brooke Niles had in mind when she scheduled seven matches in three days for Florida State on its opening weekend.
Her No. 1 pair of Alaina Chacon and Molly McBain were a little gassed, down 8-6 third and final set of a long weekend against Tampa’s Julia Oswald and Rachel Rosequist, an excellent, scrappy, cheeky and athletic duo.
Niles wanted to see how Chacon and McBain would respond, to see if the culture she has been setting in Tallahassee these past four years had fully taken root.
“I asked them what type of team they wanted to be,” Niles said. “And they said they wanted to be this gritty team. So I said, ‘If that’s what you want to be, you have to show your fans that.’”
They did, all weekend long, winning seven matches in a row, displaying a conspicuous knack for finding a way, any way, to get the ball off the sand. Any court you watched, one through five, you’d have noticed. And you’d have especially noticed it on one, with Chacon and McBain.
“They seem to know what you’re doing before you even know what you’re doing,” Stetson coach Kristina Hernandez said of Chacon and McBain. In a way, they sort of have to.
There are few on the Florida State roster who could be described as physically imposing. Chacon and McBain, for instance, stand just 5-foot-9 apiece, yet were only really challenged once on the weekend, beating opponents of all sizes.
“It’s not a type of player, big, small, whatever,” Niles said of the type of athletes she recruits. “It’s ‘Are you athletic? Do you have the mindset that you want to get better?’ They are really smart, read patterns well, watch video, do all the right things. They’re just special athletes. They all are.”
Niles even chided herself a bit for not recognizing just how special McBain was three years ago. As a freshman, McBain, a senior from Toronto, played in 13 matches and didn’t rise above court four until this season.
“I’m an idiot for not playing her,” Niles said. “Look at her now!”
It was difficult not to, as McBain and Chacon, a junior from Crown Point, Indiana, won and won and won some more, including that final match against Tampa. They flipped that 8-6 deficit into a 15-9 victory.
It capped a day when the Seminoles opened with a 4-1 victory over No. 7 Cal Poly and then swept No. 13 South Carolina. It was a tough Sunday for Cal Poly, which also lost 3-2 to No. 9 Stetson, which, in turn, lost 3-2 to Houston Baptist. And South Carolina went 0-2 as well, also losing to No. 16 TCU 3-2.
“From day one, when we walk out onto the courts, that is the culture that [Niles] has drilled in us: We will be the grittiest team, we will make the hardest plays, we will be the loudest, we will try the hardest on every single point,” Chacon said. “At this point, it’s not even a question to us, so it is hard to beat us but that’s because (Niles) has drilled into us that we have to be the most mentally tough team.”
And, as a team, they all were.
Alice Zeimann and Madison Fitzpatrick were tough on No. 2, winning five of seven. Kate Privett and Maddie Anderson won every single set they played on No. 3. Payton Caffrey and Liz Waters-Leiga were also tough on No. 4, finishing the weekend undefeated. And No. 5 was equally tough, where just one set was lost between a variety of combinations of Keara Rutz, Lexi McKeown, Jenna Johnson, and Ashley Roberts.
“We were challenged,” Niles said. “Everybody pushed us but we were just really resilient.”