A year ago, LSU was on the outside looking in, oh, so close to being one of the eight teams invited to the inaugural NCAA Beach Championship.
This year, the seventh-ranked Tigers’ lineup, dotted with freshmen, sophomores and experienced senior former indoor players, appear in pretty good shape to be in Gulf Shores in three weeks.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good resume,” coach Russell Brock said. “That’s the whole goal when you get to this part of the season. You know your fate is going to be in the hands of a group of people sitting around a table looking at results. With that in mind, we feel like we’ve built a solid resume. We obviously have to finish the season, but so far so good.”
LSU ends its regular season in a way that could only happen in Baton Rouge, with a gathering this weekend where the Tigers not only play host to No. 10 Georgia State, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Louisiana-Monroe, but the fans who come Friday get an LSU beach volleyball tank top and on Saturday everyone eats free crawfish. LSU did be sure to note on its advertisements that there will be “limited quantities” of crawfish.
Then April 21-23 is the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association tournament April 21-23 in Emerson, Ga., where the field will include No. 4 Florida State, No. 12 South Carolina, No. 14 Florida Atlantic, No. 15 Florida International and that same Georgia State, likely the team that beat out LSU for the last spot in the NCAA Championship last year.
This is the fourth year of LSU beach volleyball, a program that has annually improved, both on the sand and through recruiting.
“The transition, especially for us who were at those first tryouts when we originally started, we had to learn that we went from indoor volleyball to beach volleyball, which is a completely different game,” said fourth-year senior Emma Hiller, who is from Baton Rouge. “We had to completely disconnect the two. There was no relationship between the two. Once we made that change and we got all these new girls in we really developed a culture.”
That first year, in 2014, LSU finished 6-10. The Tigers went 14-9 in 2015, with a few more important wins and closer defeats. Then last year, they were 20-9, but with so many close losses to better teams.
This season the Tigers are 18-5 and have won 16 matches in a row. In that stretch are victories over Arizona, TCU, FIU and South Carolina. On an early season trip to Manhattan Beach, the Tigers lost 3-2 to both UCLA and Long Beach State, two teams that will be in Gulf Shores as well.
“We have a better roster than we did last year and better training,” Brock said. “We’re another year in the evolution of our program.”
That’s important to note. Brock, the former USC standout who joined LSU’s program when it started and has essentially run it since, was only officially named head coach this season. For the first three years, LSU veteran indoors coach Fran Flory was listed as the beach head coach.
“We look at things a little differently than a lot of people,” Brock said. “We built our roster and our system around being successful in the college game. I think it’s a little different than the pro game or the international game. One thing you can’t fully prepare for is there are so many different surfaces and you have to be able to play on them all.”
Brock said it’s all about “jump-ability,” that varies quite a bit where college teams play.
“We can play on the deeper sand, that’s what we’re built on and that’s what we play on here,” Brock said, pointing to the courts at Mango’s, the off-campus Baton Rouge beach facility where LSU practices and plays. “But we’ve got a roster this year where we compete when you get in those scenarios where you’ve got big athletes who play indoor ball and just get up there and bang balls into the angle and until this year we haven’t been able to handle being ‘out-athleticized,’ but we’ve added enough pieces and we’ve trained enough that we feel like we can compete in those scenarios.”
That roster includes some key freshmen, including the No. 1 pair of 5-foot-6 Kristen Nuss from New Orleans and 6-1 Claire Coppola, who came to LSU from Scottsdale, Ariz. She is 12-1 at the No. 1 and 8-2 at No. 2. As a pair, they’re only losses were to USC, Florida State and Arizona State.
“They’re young and we kind of protected them at the beginning of the year,” Brock said, noting that they played No. 2 for a bit before moving up. “Down the stretch they’ve been exclusively at the 1 and they’ve had some amazing wins.”
Coppola said she chose LSU over Arizona and UCLA.
“To be able to play girls that are 22-, 23-years-old and we’re coming in here at 18 is really fun,” Coppola said. “They have so much more experience than us so it’s been good for our game.”
That isn’t lost on Hiller.
“We’ve all been here (her, Katie Lindelow, Cati Leak) and we put so many hours in, but we were all indoor girls,” Hiller said. “Seeing these new freshmen come in and be so impactful and they know the game already. They know the beach game. It’s been their life since they can remember and they just come out here and do business. It’s amazing to watch.”
Fifth-year transfer Emma Allen from Mill Creek. Wash., who played indoors at Gonzaga and transferred for this season of beach, has been a fixture at No. 2. She has had different partners but has been with Lilly Kessler, a sophomore from Augusta, Ga.
Lindelow, from Mandeville, La., who was a fixture on the LSU indoors team, pairs at No. 3 with another freshman, Olivia Powers from Merrit Island, Fla. They are 15-3, 5-3 against ranked opponents.
At No. 4, Leak is with redshirt-freshman Maddie Ligon of Bedford, Texas. And at No. 5, New Orleans sophomore Megan Davenport has had different partners including of late Callen Molle, a senior from Galena, Ohio. Davenport is 20-2 this season.
“We feel like regardless of what happens down the stretch we’ve got wins against all the (CCSA) teams and we don’t have any bad losses,” Brock said. “But we know we want to finish strong. We know that people will very quickly forget about a 16-, 18-, 19-match winning streak if you have a couple of losses at the end. They’re going to try spin that as, ‘Hey, we’re playing better late.’ And we’re going to always go back to that we’ve been playing great all year.”
LSU, by the way, is in the process of converting its old on-campus tennis facility into a beach venue. The Tigers hope to play there in 2018.
Stetson wins ASUN: Stetson finished 10-0 in conference play and captured the Atlantic Sun regular-season championship with two victories Wednesday over Florida Gulf Coast.
The Hatters (17-10, 10-0) won 4-1 in the first match and 5-0 in second match and earned the No. 1 seed for next week’s ASUN Championship in DeLand.
“It is huge. It was one of big team goals for the year,” Stetson coach Kristina Hernandez said.
Stanford honors Walsh Jennings: Before the Cardinal beat Cal on Tuesday, one of the courts at Stanford was named for the four-time former indoors All-American.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, of course, is best known for being a four-time Olympic beach volleyball medalist. When she played at Stanford, the school didn’t have beach volleyball. But she was on Stanford NCAA-championship teams in 1996 and ’97.