Mewhirter’s NCAA beach rankings: LSU, East Region teams make statements

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Mewhirter beach rankings 3/2/2020-LSU beach volleyball-Claire Coppola

If you were seeking a physical example of the growth of beach volleyball these past nine years it has been a collegiate sport, you need look no further than Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last Saturday night. There, at the new home of the LSU beach volleyball team, more than 2,000 filed in to watch as the second-ranked Tigers, a landlocked team from a football-minded region of the country, toppled top-ranked UCLA, the two-time NCAA champions who live a short drive away from Manhattan Beach, the sport’s mecca.

This is where the sport is, and where it’s going. It’s spreading its limbs everywhere, and not just in number, but in talent. In Columbia, South Carolina, you could find the Gamecocks stunning fourth-ranked USC for the second straight year. The next day, Grand Canyon became just the 10th program in college beach volleyball to beat the unranked Trojans, winning 3-2.

It isn’t a power shift. Not by a long shot. The west is not simply handing over its firm grasp as the dominant region for the sport. But there is, without a doubt, a spreading of talent, making this year, just two weeks in, already an unpredictable blast to watch.

“I love seeing all the parity,” LMU coach John Mayer said, after his Lions beat Pepperdine for the third consecutive time.

It’s why, for the second straight week there is a new No. 1 in these power rankings, and another East team to lead the way. It’s a trend I don’t expect to stop any time soon.

No. 1 — LSU (8-2, previous rank: 4)
When the Tigers beat UCLA for the second time this season on Saturday night — the first came a week prior, in Hawai’i — and Florida State subsequently lost to the USC of the West, I knew it was time to push LSU to the top of these rankings.

It made me wonder: When was the last time a top-ranked team had two losses in just the second week of the season? With beach being so new to the college game, it has been a sport without much parity. Typically, the team who eventually wins the NCAA title does so in dominant fashion throughout the season; USC even did it once without a single loss. In 2020, however, LSU — and I expect the Tigers to get the top nod from the AVCA poll as well — will be just the second team in history to be ranked No. 1 with two losses in the first two weeks. The last team to do it was Pepperdine in 2018.

Coach Russell Brock scheduled a brutal opening stretch for the Tigers, pitting them against UCLA three times and Hawai’i twice in their first 10 matches. They’ve come out 8-2 and have won seven straight, on the back of a deep, deep lineup with maybe the best No. 4 pair in the country in Kelli Agnew and Taryn Kloth, who are 9-0 and haven’t lost a set.

Upcoming matches: Arizona, TCU, Missouri State, UAB

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

No. 2 UCLA (7-2, previous rank: 2)
Another 3-2 loss to LSU is not going to do much damage to the Bruins. Coach Stein Metzger knows he has a talented team just as well as he knows he has an inexperienced one. He has a sophomore in Abby Van Winkle on No. 1, a sophomore (Lindsey Sparks) and a freshman (Lexy Denaburg) on 2, and a pair of freshmen (Devon Newberry, Rileigh Powers) on 4. The lineup won’t remain that way. Metzger’s still experimenting, rotating players this way and that. He’ll find his groove, just as the youngsters will settle into the college environment.

“I know we have to get 20 percent better,” he said at the beginning of the season. It’s just a matter of how long that will take.

Upcoming matches: Arizona State, USC, Oregon, Washington

Abby Van Winkle stretches to keep the ball alive for UCLA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

No. 3 Florida State (10-1, previous rank: 1)
It was so close to being a perfect week for the east, with South Carolina’s and GCU’s wins over USC. And then USC rebounded to upset Florida State, 3-2, winning 15-13 in a decisive No. 2 match. This is not a bad loss by any means. Like UCLA, USC possesses a number of unknowns in transfers and freshmen, and the more the Trojans play, the better they’re going to be. Florida State caught them, it appears, at the wrong time this weekend. But the ‘Noles are still 10-1, and USC is the only team to even win multiple courts against them. In two weeks, they’ll get another crack at USC when Stetson hosts both, as well as Hawai’i, for the Stetson Beach Blast.

Upcoming matches: UNC Wilmington, North Florida

NCAA volleyball 4/6/2019-Molly McBain-Florida State-FSU
Florida State’s Molly McBain stretches out in the Seminoles victory Friday over FAU/FSU photo

No. 4 Hawai’i (7-2, previous rank: 6)
An underrated aspect of Hawai’i at the moment is that it has something few teams in the nation can currently claim: lineup stability. Coach Jeff Hall, who tinkered and toyed with his lineup 75 percent of the 2019 season, has found a groove in his top four courts: Morgan Martin and Pani Napoleon on No. 1, Julia Scoles and Maia Hannemann on 2, Amy Ozee and Brooke Van Sickle on 3, Hanna Helvig and Ilihia Huddleston at 4, and a rotating cast on 5 that has recently featured Norene Iosia and Harlee Kekauoha. That consistency will pay dividends later, when the Bows have developed a team chemistry on most every court. Since suffering a pair of close losses to UCLA and LSU, Hawai’i has won five straight and is taking the next week off.

Upcoming matches: Hawai’i is off until it goes to Stetson on March 14

Hawai’i’s Morgan Martin is primed to have a big senior year for the SandBows/UH photo

No. 5 Cal Poly (4-2, previous rank: 8)
This weekend could have been a turning point either way for Poly. The Mustangs could have continued their downhill slide after back-to-back losses to Stetson and Florida State with another two against Pepperdine and LMU. Or they could have reversed course and reestablish themselves as one of the top contenders in the west.

They did the latter, beating both Pepperdine and LMU in their new complex, setting themselves back on the right track. It makes an upcoming match with one-loss Grand Canyon that much more compelling this weekend.

Upcoming matches: Grand Canyon, Houston Baptist, San Diego Community, Abilene Christian

NCAA beach volleyball 2/23/2020-Mariah Whalen-Cal Poly beach volleyball
Cal Poly’s Mariah Whalen passes/Tim Britt photo

No. 6 Grand Canyon (7-1, previous rank: N/A)
For the first time in the short history of these power rankings, Grand Canyon has made it into the top eight. It’s always difficult to ascertain the difficulty of early-season wins. Was the Lopes’ season-opening win over Cal a big one? Was Cal over-rated? Is GCU, in the words of my former beloved Baltimore Raven quarterback Joe Flacco, “elite”?

The Lopes responded with a huge win over USC and again with a victory over South Carolina, putting themselves in excellent early position. This weekend, GCU hosts Cal Poly in what should be an excellent match.

Upcoming matches: Abilene Christian, Cal Poly, Houston Baptist, San Diego Community

No. 7 FAU (6-1, previous rank: N/A)
One of the difficult parts about evaluating a team like Florida Atlantic, among a number of smaller schools in the east who are bound to conference scheduling, is that there are only so many matches of legitimate value by which to evaluate them. So far, however, in four matches where the results are meaningful at the end of the season, the Owls have performed, winning three — two over Georgia State, one over Stetson — and losing one close one, to Florida International.

Unfortunately, it won’t be until mid-March that FAU will get to prove itself again, when it will face USC, South Carolina, TCU, and LSU in a four-day span. Until then, the Owls can continue to improve and build, beating the teams it should, preparing for a fun mid- and late-March stretch.

Upcoming matches: Jacksonville, UT-Martin, Tampa, Florida Southern. 

Upcoming matches: USC, South Carolina, Long Beach State, Stetson

8. LMU (3-2, previous rank: 7)

I’d love to reverse time and take a pre-season poll: How many would have guessed that four east region teams, and Poly, Hawai’i and LMU would be ranked – and USC wouldn’t. What an interesting landscape this 2020 season has presented us thus far. To be clear, I don’t think USC will be out of the ranks for long; the Trojans will find their groove. But it won’t be easy, not least because LMU has quickly risen into a legitimate contender in the west. The Lions have just two losses on the season – like LSU, UCLA, Hawai’i, Poly – and they’re both quality: To UCLA in a closer-than-it-looks sweep, and Poly in a 2-3 coin flip of a match. They only have one good win, 3-2 over Pepperdine, but they have a solid stretch of matches in front of them in USC, Stetson, South Carolina, and Long Beach.

First four out:
Pepperdine (0-2)
USC (2-2)
FIU (7-1)
Stetson (5-3)

Previous power rankings
February 24, 2020

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