Travis Mewhirter’s All-Americans entering 2020 NCAA beach season

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LSU's Kristen Nuss digs during action in the 2019 AVP Manhattan Beach Open/Mark Rigney photography

Every year in NCAA college beach volleyball seems like a seminal one, where something never seen before is occurring, and history is being made.

It is both an exaggeration and an accurate statement.

This is just the fifth year that beach volleyball owns the status of being an NCAA sport, and as such, it’s growing at a rate you’d expect a five-year-old anything to grow. That growth has made room for a lot of unknown quantities, and this year, there really is no certainty of who the best players in the country are.

It has been easy to peg the top pairs for a while — Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, Abril Bustamante and Tina Graudina, Nicole and Megan McNamara.

This year?

Not so easy.

But I did my best to compile the 10 players I’d expect to have excellent seasons to comprise my 2020 pre-season All-American team. I did this based on watching what is, frankly, an alarming amount of college volleyball in 2019, and after talking to more than a dozen coaches around the country to gather their thoughts on the college beach landscape.

It’s not a perfect system, and it may be entirely inaccurate come the end of the year. I welcome you to call me out on anyone I may have missed or snubbed here, and for you to offer your own insight as to who may be poised to have breakout seasons.

In the meantime, here goes:

Kristen Nuss, LSU, senior — Nuss does more with less than anybody in the country. Just 5-foot-6, Nuss and her partner, Claire Coppola – more on her in a minute – have been named CCSA Pair of the Year two consecutive seasons, setting the LSU program record for wins in 2019 (33). This will be her fourth year at the top court for the Tigers, who have become an NCAA Championship mainstay, largely thanks to their three-time All-American defender.

Claire Coppola, LSU, senior — Coppola’s numbers are the exact same as Nuss’s, for the two have played together every set since they were freshmen. She is the perfect yin to Nuss’s yang: Where Nuss is all speed and fast-twitch in the backcourt, Coppola provides the 6-foot-1 height and physicality to make them the perfect balance, a traditional beach volleyball big and little. What’s often surprising is that teams tend to serve Coppola, for reasons that I’ve never quite understood. Anyway, it hasn’t really worked for anyone thus far. In three years, Coppola and Nuss have gone 91-19, and will surely breach the 100-win mark this season.

Brook Bauer, Pepperdine, junior — Because p1440 streamed all of Pepperdine’s home matches last season, I saw more of Pepperdine than I did any other team in the nation. The player who impressed me more than anyone not named McNamara, Graudina, or Bustamante, was Brook Bauer.

In 2018, after going 23-7 between courts one and two, Bauer was named WCC Freshman of the Year, the first Wave to claim that honor. A year later, she took home WCC Defender of the Year. Standing 6 feet, Bauer is one of the taller defenders, providing both the litheness of a defender and the physicality of a blocker. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bauer established herself as not just the best defender in the WCC, but in the country.

NCAA beach volleyball 4/27/2019
UCLA’s Lily Justine stretches for the balll/Jim Wolf photography

Lily Justine, UCLA, senior — Justine did not have an easy task these past two seasons, partnered with Sarah Sponcil on UCLA’s court two. She knew, with virtual certainty, that she was going to get basically every single serve. That responsibility never stopped, or even slowed, her. In those two seasons, Justine and Sponcil went 59-13 and the Bruins won consecutive National Championships.

Justine will have a different role this year, to be sure. What court she winds up on, or with whom she winds up playing, remains to be seen, but she is one of three seniors — plus one graduate transfer — on a young Bruin team, one who understands what it takes to win multiple national titles.

Tia Miric, Cal Poly, junior — Good luck putting a ball down on Miric without her touching it. She’s tireless in the backcourt for Poly, one of the blessed few on the Mustangs who didn’t get hurt in 2019. It was her consistency, and grit, that helped Poly to an historic 2019: first Big West title; most wins in school history; first NCAA Championship appearance; first pair, with Crissy Jones, to win Big West Pair of the Year.

Miric has been on court one both of her years in San Luis Obispo, and she’ll be back for another season. She will no longer be defending behind Crissy Jones’ block — Jones is serving as the graduate assistant for coach Todd Rogers this season — but there is one particularly talented individual she’s likely to have at the top court…

Torrey Van Winden-Cal Poly-Mustangs-USA volleyball-Collegiate Beach Pairs
Torrey Van Winden split blocked with partner Emily Sonny at the 2018 Collegiate Beach Pairs championship/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Torrey Van Winden, Cal Poly, senior — Yes, yes, journalists are supposed to be unbiased, but in the name of transparency, I’ll be totally honest here: It’s wonderful to see Van Winden back on the beach and healthy again. After a devastating string of concussions that nearly robbed her of volleyball entirely, Van Winden is — knock on wood — healthy and ready to play. And what a boon that is for Poly.

Van Winden is a 6-foot-3 blocker who’s athletic and talented enough to compete in an FIVB event on a whim with another blocker, Emily Sonny, and win the whole thing. Neither of them had ever played defense before. Not that Van Winden is going to be playing much defense this year, but the point is: Her height has not diminished any touch or coordination. As a sophomore, her and Miric partnered at the top spot, finishing 19-9. After missing her junior season to concussions, she’s back, and healthy, and it’s a good thing for the sport of college beach volleyball.

Morgan Martin, Hawai’i, senior — Martin has been Hawai’i’s lynchpin for three years now, a player who has played, and can play, any position on any court: block, split-block, defense, on one, on two, on three. Doesn’t matter. She’ll just go out and win, and for the past three seasons, she has, compiling an 87-31 record. In between, she’s a somewhat regular AVP main draw player, making her first main draw in 2015, when she was a junior in high school. This past summer, she made a pair of main draws, in Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, with Cal defender Iya Lindahl, finishing 15th and ninth, respectively.

Where coach Jeff Hall puts her, and with whom she partners her, is an unknown at the moment, but what is known is that Martin wins, and wins a lot.

Margherita Bianchin, Florida International, senior — For the first time at FIU, Bianchin, a native of Venice, Italy, was able to focus her entire off-season on the beach. With no indoor to take up Bianchin’s fall, coach Rita Buck Crockett said that this is the best she’s seen the senior play yet. And with another month of pre-season to go, and with her partner, Federica Frasca, returning as well, this is shaping up to be an excellent year for FIU’s top pair.

She had a good summer, too, Bianchin. After training with the Italian national team, she competed in the Chetumal four-star, falling in the final round of the qualifier to Sara Hughes and Terese Cannon, 20-22, 19-21.

Reka Orsi Toth, LMU, junior — Orsi Toth made an immediate impact at LMU after transferring in from Coastal Carolina, helping lead the Lions to the first WCC title in program history. That, and she had barely settled into her dorm room before she began practicing with the team. Now that Orsi Toth has had an entire year to settle into Santa Monica and the program, coach John Mayer is excited about the progress she has made this off-season.

In 2019, she finished 27-9 on courts one and two with Megan Nash and Savannah Slattery. A 30-win season wouldn’t be out of the realm of expectations.

Alaina Chacon, Florida State, junior — If there’s a single word to describe Chacon, gritty may be the one. Her 14-7 record at court one in 2019 with Madison Fitzpatrick didn’t set any records, but it’s the leap she made from her freshman to sophomore season that was most impressive. As a freshman, she played in just seven matches before jumping up to a court one starter for coach Brooke Niles. With the rate that Chacon is improving, she could firmly establish herself as one of the best defenders in the nation, if she isn’t one already, and with many of the top defenders from 2019 having graduated, now is the perfect time to do so.

Others I didn’t mention but gave me a great deal of grief not to include them:

  • Carly Perales, Stetson
  • Sunniva Helland-Hansen, Stetson
  • Virtually everyone at USC, but to name a few: Audrey Nourse, Nicole Nourse, Haley Hallgren, Hailey Harward
  • Virtually everyone at UCLA, but to name a few: Lindsey Sparks, Mac May, Savvy Simo, Lexy Denaburg, Abby Van Winkle.
  • Deahna Kraft, Pepperdine
  • Gigi Hernandez, Pepperdine
  • Macy Gordon, Cal Poly
  • Julia Scoles, Hawai’i
  • Amy Ozee, Hawai’i
  • Madison Fitzpatrick, FSU
  • Iya Lindahl, Cal
  • Kate Privett, FSU
  • Olivia Powers, LSU
  • Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope, LSU

20 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Travis,
    You have probably forgotten the most impressive entry in these 5 years with medals in all international competitions under age, from TCU the Spanish freshman Daniela Álvarez (@danielaalvarezz_), who has even already competed against our queen Kerry Lee Walsh Jennings (@kerrileewalsh) in Quinzhou last year. #GoFrogs

  2. Madison Ligon went 23-8 last year, earned CCSA Pair of the Week with Olivia Beyer, and went 3-0 at Natty’s including a win against USC in the semifinals with Beyer. She had 72 wins for LSU before transferring to LMU for her senior season.

    Olivia Beyer went 17-4 last year in her first season playing beach and went 9-1 with Ligon down the stretch. She transferred to TCU this year and is poised to have a breakout year.

    Olivia Powers rode the bench at LSU after a mid-season lineup change. Toni Rodriguez stepped in and saved that team at the 3’s after never having played beach before.

    The Nourse twins haven’t played a meaningful game for USC but are honorable mentions?

    It’s easy to pick popular names from big schools, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, this is poor journalism.

    • Lee here. I live in Baton Rouge and am well aware of the current and former LSU players. I’ll have a feature on the team soon.

      • Imagine being a Gamecock fan:

        – Barely missed selection for the NCAA tournament.

        – Returned several big-time starters such as Katie Smith and Hannah Edelman.

        – Recruited Florida indoor transfer Morgyn Greer.

        It’s great that Travis watched a ton of beach volleyball last year, but it’s painfully apparent it was West Coast volleyball.

  3. Some of these picks are absolutely baffling. Girls who have never played a season of college ball make the list over players from smaller schools with accolades for days? Wow.

    • Perhaps you missed this part of the story:

      But I did my best to compile the 10 players I’d expect to have excellent seasons to comprise my 2020 pre-season All-American team. I did this based on watching what is, frankly, an alarming amount of college volleyball in 2019, and after talking to more than a dozen coaches around the country to gather their thoughts on the college beach landscape.

      It’s not a perfect system, and it may be entirely inaccurate come the end of the year. I welcome you to call me out on anyone I may have missed or snubbed here, and for you to offer your own insight as to who may be poised to have breakout seasons.

  4. “Virtually everyone at USC”

    “Virtually everyone at UCLA”

    I’m all for recognizing that these two teams are California, let alone beach, powerhouses but even this seems like a bit much. Both teams graduated multiple key players and will have to find their identities again.

  5. Going to echo some of the other comments here; to pick girls who have never played a season of collegiate beach volleyball because of the program they are apart of over girls that have gone to lesser programs but worked their tail off to get where they are is an insult and part of the reason why this sport struggles to grow beyond the West Coast.

  6. Ellena Austin a freshman from England playing at FAU. Picked up her first FIVB 1* bronze this summer at IOS Island and NEZVA U19 Gold. And agreed Daniela at LSU is a very special athletes going from strength to strength exciting to watch especially being a leftie.

  7. – Appreciate the feedback! Especially those who identified players I may not have had on my radar. Many were, but if they weren’t, they are now, so I thank you for that. I missed a few, to be sure.
    – I live in Hermosa Beach, so yes, the vast majority of what I saw last season was West Coast. A bit of an inevitability, but I’ll be taking a 10-day trip to the East Coast this season to help alleviate that.
    – For players I selected with no college experience over some with proven track records at smaller or East Coast schools, they were not simply blind guesses because they were recruited to strong programs. The Nourses, for example, made multiple AVP main draws — beating college national champions in the process — and five on the FIVB. I find that to be a fine testament to their ability to win at the college level. It’s why kids like Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft (USC next year) will likely be on this list a year from now.
    – Always open to feedback/discussions/heads ups/programs I should keep an eye on. Shoot me an email: mewhirtert@gmail.com. I’ll take all the help I can get

    • Travis, you have completely missed the point of the other comments; cherry-picking stats doesn’t earn someone a spot on a list when they haven’t proven themselves. There are plenty of girls in college beach that can’t afford to go to AVP’s and FIVB’s and the costs that go along with them. As an AVP player yourself, you should understand that. Do better.

  8. Actually you could ( should) include Kraft and Maple now! Yes, they are high school seniors, but they both were more successful last year on the AVP tour than any current college players mentioned above. Also, last summer they regularly practiced or played against a few of the mentioned college players in other open tourneys with consistent success!!. At this point, they are the pair with the brightest future!

    • This has to be a joke.

      Two high school seniors are better than/have the brightest future out of all the girls playing collegiate beach volleyball right now?

      I think we found the parent/coach posting under an alias.

      • Parent?

        Madison Bogle is a 2020 Hawaii commit from San Diego, CA.

        Slow down there with the predictions, Boomer. The current class of athletes still have a ton ahead of them/left to prove.

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