Special time in Baton Rouge as No. 1 UCLA visits No. 2 LSU in beach volleyball

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LSU vs UCLA 2/28/2020-Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope-LSU beach volleyball
LSU's Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope digs against UCLA last Sunday in Hawai'i/Jay Metzger photo

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — This is the other LA. 

In beach-volleyball terms, it might as well be in another country than California.

But … 

LSU senior Kristen Nuss might be the best player in NCAA beach volleyball.

She’s from New Orleans.

LSU, which stands for Louisiana State University, might have the best team in NCAA beach volleyball.

And Saturday afternoon, the second-ranked Tigers play host to No. 1 UCLA, the team with which it split two matches last weekend in Hawai’i.

It almost makes Nuss giddy to think about now. And if you told her this could happen back when she was in high school?

“I definitely would not have believed you,” she said. 

“I would have questioned it a lot,” she added with a laugh. “And it really is something special. To be playing on LSU’s campus, No. 1 and No. 2. It’s a big thing and I hope a lot of people realize how big of a thing it is and come out and see it because it’s something that’s never happened. I’m excited.”

By all accounts the Louisiana beach volleyball world will turn out on what is expected to be a Saturday in the 70s with a soft breeze and bright sunshine, which will fade away with the 5:15 p.m. Central start. So the lights will be on from the start for the Tiger Beach Challenge that will feature the biggest NCAA beach match in the history of the state. This is the seventh year of LSU beach volleyball.

Both teams open Saturday’s play with other opponents. UCLA faces Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 11:15 a.m. and then LSU plays Houston Baptist.

LSU struggled last Saturday at Hawai’i, opening with a sweep of Stanford but then falling 4-1 to UCLA and then Hawai’i 3-2.

But the Tigers bounced back in a big way and opened Sunday’s play with a 4-1 win over Hawai’i before beating UCLA 3-2 for the tournament title.

LSU was previously 0-8 against UCLA, “so beating UCLA was fun to do and something we don’t take lightly,” LSU coach Russell Brock said. “It was very gratifying and for us and set the tone moving forward this year.”

They say a football team improves the most from the first game to the second. Was that what happened from Saturday to Sunday for LSU?

“We flew on Friday and then had a little practice and woke up Saturday (four times zones behind) and played,” Brock said. “That’s a pretty significant jolt to the system. I think that was part of it. The second day was still a four-hour difference, obviously, but we were able to understand how our bodies would perform and kind of recalibrated to that. And even emotionally we were really good on day two.”

In that Sunday match, UCLA took a 2-0 lead when Lindsey Sparks and Lexi Denaburg swept Jess Schaben and Sydney Moore at No. 2 and Megan Muret and Devon Newberry swept Allison Coens and Hunter Domanski at No. 5.

LSU made it 2-1 when the No. 4 pair of Kelli Agnew and Taryn Kloth beat Rileigh Powers and Madi Yeomans, and then tied it when No. 1s Nuss and Claire Coppola rallied to beat Abby Van Winkle and Savvy Simo 16-21, 24-22, 15-11. The day before, Simo and Van Winkle won 21-17, 21-14.

So it came down to No. 3, where on Saturday Lily Justine and Lea Monkhouse of UCLA beat LSU’s Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope and Toni Rodriguez 21-19, 17-21, 15-8. Sunday, the Tigers turned the tables and won 23-21, 18-21, 15-13.

There’s no reason to think the exact same lineups won’t go at it again Saturday.

In LSU’s case, Nuss and Coppola, a senior from Scottsdale, Arizona, are a fixture at No.1.

“They didn’t have their best weekend last weekend, which is even more impressive that we finished as well as we did and they were not on their A game,” Brock said, and Nuss agreed.

Schaben, a 6-foot-2 product of Iowa, is a graduate transfer from Iowa State and surprising everyone how quickly she’s adapted to the beach game. Moore is a freshman from Ohio.

At No. 3, Rasnick-Pope, the sophomore defender from Dallas, and Rodriguez, the 6-1 graduate student from nearby St. Amant who was granted a sixth year of NCAA eligibility, might be the LSU X factor.

LSU’s Taryn Kloth puts up the big block against UCLA’s Madi Yeomans/Jay Metzger photo

The No. 4 duo was named the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association pair of the week as Kloth and Agnew went a stunning 5-0 last weekend. 

“I think it was great and I’m honored, but I think winning the entire tournament and what LSU has done in beach volleyball the past couple of years is more important,” Kloth said. “We’re doing everything we can to put ourselves in a good position at the end of the year. So the overall team win was the biggest win of the weekend.”

Agnew is a sophomore from Glendale, Arizona, while the 6-4 Kloth is a second-season graduate transfer from Creighton, where she was an indoors star.

“They’re both very talented, both have incredible gifts, but not a lot of developed chemistry history between each other because they haven’t played with each other very long,” Brock said. “So for them to be able to play like a genuine partnership at such a high level against that competition for five matches, was really impressive.”

Kloth, from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had never played beach volleyball when she got to LSU last year. She played sparingly for the Tigers but not in the NCAA Championship in Gulf Shores and recognizes how much she’s improved.

“I was talking to Jess about this and Toni (who played indoors for LSU). It is a transition process,” Kloth said. “And you have to know that coming in. You have to know that it’s going to be a process, it’s going to be frustrating, it’s going to be  challenging, but it’s meant to be.

“It’s fun, but it’s a completely different sport. That’s why you get to play another year of it.”

At No. 5, LSU has Coens, a sophomore from Kansas, and Domanski, a junior from New Braunfels, Texas.

UCLA has won the last two NCAA titles. The Bruins had mixed results last weekend at Hawai’i, beating the home team 3-2 and then LSU 4-1 before sweeping Stanford on Saturday. Sunday, UCLA swept Stanford again before losing to LSU.

After the weekend, UCLA stayed No. 1 in the AVCA Coaches Poll and LSU moved up a notch to its highest ranking ever.

So now we have No. 1 vs. No. 2 at LSU.

“It’s pretty far-fetched in the grand scheme of things,” Brock admitted.

It’s happened before for LSU, while not in beach volleyball. This past November, of course, No.LSU beat No. 2 Alabama in a pretty big football game. But no matter how you look at it, 1 vs. 2 is rare.

But this? 

Brock has his own take on what he would have thought years ago if you’d suggested it.

“Honestly I probably would have been disappointed that we were 2 and they were 1 and not the other way around,” he said with a smile.

“But from the beginning we felt like this year would be the one where we could be pretty good.”

That’s not lost on the Tigers, but it’s early in a relatively short season that culminates with the NCAA Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship the first weekend of May in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“We’re here, we’re here to win it this year,” Nuss said, “but it’s only the beginning. We still have a lot of work to do.”

LSU will be home again Sunday, playing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tulane, and Springhill. UCLA is here just for Saturday’s action, but the two teams will play again in the East Meets West Invitational on April 11 on Manhattan Beach.

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