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.
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.
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, 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