Russell Brock has a theory about why the LSU football team and Joe Burrow, its Heisman-winning quarterback, put together the best season in program history: That Heisman-winning quarterback had been spending quite a bit of time with the beach volleyball team.
“We might have rubbed off on him,” said Brock, the LSU beach volleyball coach. “He’s pretty fun to be around. He’s good to watch.”
Yes, watching Burrow eviscerate Oklahoma and Clemson in the College Football Playoff was fun to watch. But so, too, has it been fun to watch the LSU beach volleyball team. In the past two seasons, the same years that Burrow was the starting quarterback, LSU won 58 matches and lost only 22. The Tigers have won one Coastal Collegiate Sports Association title, made the finals for another, and then last May made the semifinals of the NCAA Championships before losing a 3-2 thriller to USC.
“Our thing is ‘Go make a legacy,’ ” said Kristen Nuss, who has been LSU’s No. 1 defender for the past three seasons and returns again with partner Claire Coppola. “That’s what we’re trying to do this year: Do something for the program that’s never been done before.
“I think collectively as a team it’s going to take a lot of work to get us there and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get us to that final Sunday in May. We’re looking forward to our final season.”
It is both hard to believe that the speedy Nuss, the 5-foot-6 dynamo from New Orleans, and Coppola, the 6-1 product of Scottsdale, Arizona, still have one more year in Baton Rouge and impossible to imagine the program without them. They have been the bedrock of one of the East Region’s perennial powers, and though Brock and the rest of the coaching staff will try to convince you the Tigers are the scrappy underdogs from the Deep South, with Coppola and Nuss, arguably the nation’s best duo, they are a favorite to make Gulf Shores yet again.
In three seasons together, Nuss and Coppola are 96-19. In 2018, as sophomores, they became LSU’s first All-Americans on the beach. In 2019, they set the program record with 33 wins and became the first pair to win back-to-back CCSA Conference Pair of the Year honors.
“They’re finally leaving,” Florida State coach Brooke Niles said, laughing. “Thank goodness.”
But not without one more season in Baton Rouge. And not without a stacked lineup behind them on Nos. 1 through 5. Brock is overseeing a team that returns 10 starters and a 6-foot-2 transfer from Iowa State in Jess Schaben.
Back, alongside Coppola and Nuss, are Allison Coens, a sophomore from Lenexa, Kansas (23-6 in 2019); Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope, a sophomore from Dallas (18-14); Hunter Domanski, a junior from New Braunfels, Texas (29-8); Kahlee York, a junior from Bradenton, Florida (8-8); Kelli Agnew, a sophomore from Glendale, Arizona (15-20); Olivia Powers, a senior from Merritt Island, Florida (9-12); 6-foot-4 Taryn Kloth, who is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and made the transition to beach last year after transferring from Creighton (18-9); and local product Toni Rodriguez, who is from St. Amant, Louisiana (21-14). Rodriguez, injured early in her indoors career, successfully petitioned the NCAA and got a sixth year of eligibility, and now gets to play another college season after making the main AVP main draw in Manhattan Beach.
“I’m not sure it could be going a whole lot better,” Brock said of the preseason in Baton Rouge. “We’ll put up with it if we have to. There’s a lot of championships in the air down here so we’ll deal with that.”
And, for one more season, the nation will have to deal with Nuss and Coppola, and the juggernaut they have helped build at LSU.
“It all starts from the top. When we compete, it starts from the top,” Brock said. “When we train, it starts from the top. When we bring recruits on campus and they get to meet them, the best part about them is they don’t act like that. They don’t act like they’re the best pair in the country. They grind just like everybody else and they respect everybody they step in the sand with and they respect everybody that’s on our team and that’s just the example that’s set.
“We try not to think about what it’s going to be like when they’re not here because it feels like they’ve been here for 15 years and they’ve really impacted our program not just in the win-loss column but in all kinds of ways: academically, in the community, with respect to our campus. It’s really special.”