By Ray Glier for VolleyballMag.com
It seems illogical, but the hot, dry sand behind the Georgia State University Sports Center is an oasis.
The GSU players consider those beach volleyball courts a sanctuary from stereotypes of what a Division I player should look like. The GSU sand, insist the team nicknamed the Sandy Panthers, is refuge from stressed coaches, not at their school, but at other schools. That sand is also a harbor from selfishness that can warp a college team.
This oasis of sand/culture in the middle of downtown Atlanta, with the gold dome of the state capitol in the background, helps explain how a mid-major like Georgia State can finish fifth in the 2022 national tournament and currently stand No. 11 in the AVCA Collegiate Beach Coaches Poll.
It’s not hyperbole. It’s not made-up culture.
The Sandy Panthers’ 5-foot-4 junior twins Angel and Bella Ferary, who play on Court 1, were rejected as a package by every Division I school that recruited them, except GSU.
“A lot of schools didn’t want us together because we’re two short people. They were like, ‘We’ll take one of you’,” Angel said. She and Bella are from nearby Marietta, Georgia.
“We don’t yell at them,” coach Beth Van Fleet said. “We won’t do that. Well, maybe once every other year, but I’d call it more being stern. We don’t assume the athletes are messing up on purpose.”
Freshman Cassie Thayse could have played at a number of schools coming out of high school. She picked GSU, where player development still counts for something. Thayse is not among the top five flights of starters, but she gave no hint she is soon headed to the transfer portal feeling betrayed, like so many other mismatched college athletes.
Georgia State is 13-7 and has lost only to the best teams in the nation, including twice to No. 4 Florida State.
Van Fleet is in her 10th season as the head coach and has six 20-win seasons. Her program doesn’t conform to the characteristics of most of the elite national programs, not in the least. GSU is not on a coast. It is not in beach volleyball strongholds like California, Florida, or Texas.
So what is the GSU cornerstone, the first building block?
For Van Fleet the architecture starts with refusing to whine. GSU does not have the resources of No. 3 UCLA or current No. 1 TCU (which Georgia State stunned in the tournament in 2022), so she divides responsibilities among four committees of players, which cover recruiting, social media, maintenance, and team events. They all pitch in on meals.
“I think we do a great job of looking around and seeing what we have and making the most of it,” Van Fleet said. “We don’t look around at all the things we don’t have and worry about it. If we get hung up on what Power 5 schools have that we don’t have then we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”
For their part, the players insist success starts with Van Fleet’s style of player development and elasticity.
“I’ve been here five years,” said Kelly Dorn, a 5-9 product of Trophy Club, Texas, “and the way we played my freshman year I don’t feel like is the way we play this year. Every year, we’re adapting. We’re seeing what other teams are doing. We’re seeing what we can do better. We’re trying weird options. We’re trying new defenses. Like, it just grows every year.”
Assistant coach Tiffany Creamer, a Georgian who played for Van Fleet at GSU, still plays on the AVP Tour and brings the latest trends from the pros to the Sandy Panthers. Van Fleet and Creamer seem to tag team on just about every facet of the program and their chemistry lifts players who were passed over by Power 5 schools.
What else turns the wheels?
Defense is a fundamental GSU doesn’t cheat on. Van Fleet said her team has four or five core defenses, but they can expand to 14 or 15 different calls, depending on the players’ comfort level.
And the players’ comfort level always come first. At a recent afternoon practice, Van Fleet devoted the last 45 minutes to allowing players to work on whatever they wanted.
To work around players’ schedules, Van Fleet and Creamer will hold two or three, even four, practices a day splitting up the 16-player roster. A small roster is another hallmark of Van Fleet’s program.
“Beth goes out of her way to help every single person whether that’s moving into their apartments and all the little extra things she does for them and I think that’s such a huge piece,” Creamer said. “It’s so easy to buy into the program when you know your coaching staff is interested in you.
“When I was a player I would do anything for her because she would do anything for me.”
The idea of Van Fleet being a players’ coach extends to the sand, especially with the diminuitive Ferary twins.
“We run a totally different game. We’re not traditional,” Angel said. “So she (Beth) tells us to use our strengths, which is being fast, being able to move the set around quickly, being able to like run across the court and then set all the way across the court to trick out the defense.
“All that comes together with playing our game and her encouraging us to be able to play our game instead of saying ‘No, you have to play the way everyone else plays’.”
The Ferarys are an example of the recruiting structure at GSU.
“We will we try really hard not to use absolute statements about someone and what they are capable of and we try very hard not to count out someone,” Van Fleet said. “You never know that moment someone’s light bulb is gonna pop on and they’re gonna be unstoppable.
“One of the things that we try to identify is how hungry somebody is to accomplish their goals. The twins, for example, came in and said ‘we want to win a national championship’. I said ‘Let’s go then’.”
The culture of communication extends to the health and safety of players, run by athletic trainer Hannah Reich and strength and conditioning coach J.D. Melhorn. There is a regimen of “prehab” that goes into every stretch and every lift, and the Sandy Panthers, for the most part, stay fit.
“I over-communicate,” Reich said. “If an athlete communicates it (possible injury) and we’re ahead of it, then we’re going to prevent something worse happening.”
There is one ingredient Van Fleet puts into the mix to keep the pressure off her players. A long run in the NCAA Tournament would be swell, and the ultimate for many college athletes, but she doesn’t want them devoted to a title and make it the defining moment in their lives.
“We are a great opportunity for people who don’t want to peak in life in college,” Van Fleet said. “So if you want if you want to peak in college, then Georgia State is probably not your spot. Georgia State is setting you up to go on for greatness and to go on and peak later in your life.
“Georgia State is the stepping stone. I don’t want anybody on our team peaking in college.”
It’s one of the reasons the program is cast in a foundation of concrete, not shifting sand.
Georgia State is coming a weekend at South Carolina in which the Sandy Panthers swept Division II power Tampa 5-0, did the same to Arizona State and beat Houston Christian 3-0. Then they beat No. 16 South Carolina as the Ferarys won at No. 1 in three to complete their perfect weekend. That victory over Arizona State also gave Van Fleet No. 200 at Georgia State.
This weekend, Georgia State goes to Manhattan Beach for the East Meets West. It sets up as a challenging couple of days because GSU plays, in order, No. 7 Loyola Marymount, No. 8 Hawai’i, No. 2 USC and No. 3 UCLA.
The Sandy Panthers return home the next weekend and play host to UT Martin, No. 17 Stetson, South Carolina and UAB.