TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It makes Stetson coach Kristina Hernandez nervous. All of it. Did she put out the right lineup? Should she move this pair up and this pair down? Should she split up partners? Shift things around?
The toughest and most agonizing part is that there is only one way to know whether you have made the right or wrong decision: You put out your lineup, and you see what happens.
Setting the first lineup of the season is deceptively one of the toughest aspects of college coaching, one that was on full display for No. 2 Florida State’s season-opening Seminole Beach Bash, including Hernandez’s ninth-ranked Stetson Hatters, Tampa, No. 16 TCU, No. 7 Cal Poly, Houston Baptist, No. 13 South Carolina, and Louisiana-Monroe.
Every coach knows, almost invariably, that their lineup on day one will not be the same lineup they put forth on the final match of the season. The question, then, is just how many changes they’ll need to make to get there, which is ideally a smaller number than most.
“We try to build partners first and see what the best partnerships are, and then whether it makes sense within the entire lineup,” said Hernandez, who is in her seventh season at Stetson. So even when she has a partnership she knows is, indeed, an excellent partnership, like Sunniva Helland-Hansen and Carly Perales, she still tinkered with the idea of splitting them.
They’ve played together for three years, own a share of the single-season wins record (32), have undeniable chemistry.
“They’re really good,” Hernandez said, “but they also play well with other people. So is it as good?”
Such is the quandary faced with coaches at the beginning of the season, a puzzle that is unique almost exclusively to beach volleyball coaches.
While every sport has its lineups, most sports allow complete autonomy for the coach to do whatever he or she pleases with his lineup. In beach, a player can only move up or down one court at a time, so if, say, Cal Poly coach Todd Rogers wanted to move Torrey Van Winden, his blocker on No. 1, to partner with Emily Sonny on No. 3 — this is purely a hypothetical exercise; Rogers has not expressed interest in this notion — it would take two matches for him to do so.
“Part of it is ‘If this team doesn’t work out, how can I make adjustments in the least amount of shifts?’” Rogers said on Saturday, a day in which his Mustangs had 4-1 victories over both South Carolina and Tampa. “If I see this is not working, it’s a real easy one here, rather than ‘Oh, I gotta go here first, then here, and three or four duals later I finally get there.’ ”
Likewise, no lineup changes were needed for Florida State, which rolled on Saturday, sweeping Houston Baptist and TCU and beating Stetson 4-1. But it was after that victory over Stetson that the first swap was made: Hernandez flipped her Nos. 1 and 2, moving Perales and Helland-Hansen to No. 2 and Brazilians Ana Costa and Kyce Martins to No. 1 for the Hatters’ last match of the day, against Louisiana-Monroe.
It wasn’t even a punishment, really. Just mixing it up. Helland-Hansen and Perales had lost to Florida State’s No. 1 duo of Alaina Chacon and Molly McBain, who have quickly established themselves as an elite pair, and Costa and Martins had beat Madison Fitzpatrick and Alice Zeimann.
“There were goods and bads,” Hernandez said of Stetson’s opening day. “We go through waves. We have to learn lessons fast.”
And they have to learn them both as players and coaches, as lineups are shifted and switched and perfected until, at last, the Gulf Shores recipe is found. While Rogers, Hernandez, Florida State coach Brooke Niles and TCU coach Hector Gutierrez all agreed that changing lineups isn’t always their first option, they also all concurred that this won’t be their final lineup of the year. They’ve been around long enough to know better.
“It’s tough,” Gutierrez said during a day in which his Frogs lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Stetson and were swept by Stetson. “We’re trying to figure out how to be really strong out there. We’re flexible because every year we have better players, and every year we have better competitors. We’re going to give you a chance, and you have to grab it.”
See below for Tim Britt’s photo gallery from day one of the Seminole Beach Bash.