When LSU got into the eight-team NCAA beach-championship field for the first time two years ago, then-freshman Kristen Nuss was simply excited to be making the trip to Gulf Shores, Ala.
Accordingly, the Tigers, seeded seventh, lost to UCLA, beat Long Beach State and were eliminated by Hawai’i.
Last year, seeded seventh again, LSU lost to Pepperdine, beat South Carolina, but was knocked out by eventual winner UCLA.
This year, the Tigers head to the Redneck Riviera for the National College Beach Championship that starts Friday with a much different outlook after a regular season in which LSU beat or played tough against every team in the bracket.
“It’s definitely a different feeling compared to our freshman year,” said Nuss, who plays No. 1 with fellow junior Claire Coppola.
“Yeah, freshman year we were like ‘We finally get to go, we’re super excited,’ and especially as freshmen, we didn’t really know what to expect,” said Nuss, a high-jumping, power-hitting 5-foot-6 speedster from New Orleans.
“And I think that’s something to consider, because we do have a lot of people who are going for the first time. So we can help them out and tell them what they’re going to experience.”
The first thing they’ve experienced is a tinge of disappointment.
LSU thought surely it would be the No. 4 seed playing the No. 5. However, the NCAA made Pepperdine, winner of the West Coast Conference, the No. 4, but the outcome is the same regardless of where you stand in the 4-5 first-round matchup.
The winner gets the 1-8 winner in Friday’s second round (in this case USC vs. Stetson) and the loser plays the other loser in an elimination match.
And there’s one more thing, as coach Russell Brock told his team. The lower seed means LSU will wear purple not gold. None of the Tigers seemed to care. He joked that the seeding does affect which hotel the NCAA puts you in and “we like the odd-numbered hotel,” Brock said. “So it could have been a bonus.”
“If nothing else it might give us an edge to prove we deserve that 4 seed,” Nuss offered.
Nuss and Coppola, a 6-1 product of Scottsdale, Ariz., have gone 31-3 this season, losing only to UCLA’s McNamara twins (twice) and USC’s Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante.
“We’re definitely confident going into this weekend,” Nuss said. “We’ve beaten Pepperdine but we haven’t beaten USC. But we’re super excited and have super confidence in each other.”
LSU went 2-2 at the East Meets West Challenge in March at Manhattan Beach. The Tigers lost 4-1 to UCLA (one of the times Nuss and Coppola lost to the McNamaras), beat Pepperdine 3-2, lost 4-1 to USC, and then beat Hawa’i’i 3-2.
Those four teams are all in the field. So is Florida State, to which LSU has lost three times. LSU beat Cal Poly and Stetson in their only meetings.
“Even going in as the fifth seed, which is the highest seed we’ve been, it just shows that we’re more prepared than years before,” Nuss said. “There’s a certain focus that we have and that started from day one in the fall.
“We excited, we’re focused and ready to go.”
Brock has tinkered with his lineup, settling on junior Olivia Powers and freshman Kelli Agnew at No. 2.
“We have to win at the 2,” Brock said.
Senior Toni Rodriguez and freshman Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope are at No. 3, senior Oliva Beyer and junior Maddie Ligon aree at No. 4, and Hunter Domanski and Allison Coens (who has been out with an illness), are 20-5 at No. 5 this season.
Beyer, a 6-1 middle, finished her LSU indoor career and moved to the beach this winter, but spent most of the first half of the season watching and wishing. Finally she and Agnew got a chance when LSU went to a tournament at FIU in late March and they’ve never left the lineup, going 5-1 at the No. 4 spot.
“There’s some chemistry and magic in that pairing,” Brock said.
“We want to be the first East team to win the tournament,” Beyer said. “It was cool to walk into a program where that was the goal from the start.”
LSU’s new on-campus court has deep sand. The Tigers hope to take advantage of the “jumpier” sand and windy conditions in Gulf Shores.
“Across our lineup whoever steps on the court has an opportunity to win and we expect to win on every court,” Nuss said. “It’s awesome to have that feeling and confidence in each other. We know we can feed off each other and the energy coming off every court.”
LSU is 29-6.
“I think we did what we needed to do to be in a position to win some matches and try to get to Sunday,” Brock said.
That’s a long way away, but it’s a lot more than just being happy to get an invite.
“It’s definitely a different feeling,” Nuss said. “We know we can win this national championship.”