Mewhirter’s NCAA beach rankings: FSU’s strong opener pushes Seminoles to the top

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NCAA beach rankings 2/24/2020-Alain Chacon-florida State beach volleyball-Alaina Chacon
FSU's Kate Privett takes advantage of the open net/Tim Britt photo

We are just one week into the NCAA beach volleyball season, and only three of my pre-season top eight teams remain undefeated, and one of them (USC) didn’t play, and another (Pepperdine) played two matches against a junior college.

In Honolulu, Hawai’i, for the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic, UCLA suffered its first loss of the season to LSU, in a thrilling final that came down to 15-13 in the third set on court No. 3. But the Tigers didn’t finish the weekend unblemished, having lost to Hawai’i the day before in pool play before avenging that loss in Sunday’s semifinals.

A few time zones over, in Tallahassee for the Seminole Beach Bash, Stetson upended Cal Poly but was stunned in its ensuing match by Houston Baptist. Even further over, in Jacksonville, Georgia State opened its season with an upset over Florida International — and then was swept by Florida Atlantic.

Welcome to NCAA Beach Volleyball, 2020 edition.

Here are the power rankings after the first week of the regular season, which, by this upcoming Sunday, I’m sure will be as worthless as my pre-season rankings proved to be. But, hey, it’s a fun exercise to do and will hopefully spark some debate and discussion and interest in the beach scene, which is an absolute blast to cover.

1. Florida State (7-0, previously No. 5)
It took just one week for there to be a new No. 1 in the house. Frankly, even if LSU hadn’t upset UCLA on Queen’s Beach, Florida State would have made a mighty argument to be here. The Seminoles dominated every phase of every match they played in their home tournament this weekend, cruising through seven opponents, including Cal Poly (4-1), Stetson (4-1), South Carolina (5-0), TCU (5-0), and an honestly really good team out of Tampa, which won the AVCA Small Schools Championship a year ago and is a Division I-caliber program.

It’s not just the fact that the ‘Noles won, either: It’s how they won. Rare was the time that Florida State was out of system, scrambling, grinding. They take pride in being a gritty team, and they are, but they’re also as smooth and controlled as they come. Brooke Niles has built something special in Tallahassee.

Upcoming matches: Grand Canyon, South Carolina, College of Charleston, USC.  

Beach Bash 2/24/2020-Liz Waters-Leiga-FSU beach volleyball
Liz Waters-Leiga digs for FSU/Tim Britt photo

2. UCLA (5-1, previously No. 1)
It’s always fun to see Stein Metzger tinkering with the pieces of quite a talented puzzle he has in Westwood. In six matches, the coach has put out six different lineups, an ongoing experiment he is likely to continue after losing five talented seniors from his National Championship team a year ago. Three freshmen — Devon Newberry, Lexy Denaburg, Rileigh Powers — are regular starters, as is transfer Jacqueline Quade. Savvy Simo is new to court one, though she’s holding it down well with sophomore Abby Van Winkle.

Even with all that movement, UCLA is still 5-1, opening its season with a strong schedule in LMU, Hawai’i, LSU, Stanford twice, and then LSU again. A loss is not the worst thing to happen to these Bruins. It’ll be a good learning experience for the younger ones, and overall a positive in terms of growth and for Metzger to see what’s working and who plays especially well with whom.

Upcoming matches: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tulane, LSU

Savvy Simo celebrates a Van Winkle block/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

3. USC (0-0, previously No. 2)
I am committing one of my cardinal sins here in dropping a team that hasn’t yet competed. But after watching Florida State blow through six opponents on Saturday and Sunday, I couldn’t leave the Seminoles buried, as I so wisely did in my preseason rankings. The ‘Noles earned their spot at the top, and UCLA’s fingernail-length loss to LSU is by no means an indictment. This week will be a good test for the young Trojans, who will travel to Hilton Head, South Carolina, to see the College of Charleston, South Carolina, Grand Canyon and Florida State.

Upcoming matches: College of Charleston, South Carolina, Grand Canyon, Florida State. 

NCAA beach volleyball 4/28/2019
USC’s Joy Dennis celebrates after a big block/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

4. LSU (3-2, previously No. 3)
Coach Russell Brock and his star seniors, Claire Coppola and Kristen Nuss, ended a phone call a month or so before the season began by thanking me — for dropping them in the rankings, all the way to, gasp, No. 3. DiG Magazine had the Tigers at No. 2, and Brock and his Tigers jokingly appreciated the extra motivation of being slighted.

Well, if that’s the case: You’re welcome, coach! The Tigers rebounded after a tough opening day in Honolulu, where they lost to Hawai’i and UCLA and were pushed well by Stanford, by avenging both losses and winning the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic.

Their win over UCLA, which was being broadcast live on Instagram — thank you, to whoever runs their excellent Twitter and Instagram accounts! — was thrilling, and an indicator of a really fun season to come in the college beach world. Nuss and Coppola found their footing, handing Savvy Simo and Abby Van Winkle their first loss of the season after handling Hawai’i’s tremendous court one duo of Morgan Martin and Pani Napoleon.

But the real stars of the weekend could be found on court four, where Taryn Kloth and Kelli Agnew hammered out five wins in 10 sets, with only one set being closer than 21-16. Depth is key to success in this sport, and LSU has it, with Nuss and Coppola up top and Taryn Kloth and Kelli Agnew holding down the back half of the lineup.

Upcoming matches: Houston Baptist, UCLA, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Tulane, Spring Hill. 

LSU celebrates its big victory in Hawai’i/Grant Kauvar photo

5. Pepperdine (2-0, previously No. 4)
I did it again: I dropped a team that didn’t lose a set, much less a match. Pepperdine opened its season quietly, playing Irvine Valley College twice on Friday. Such is the benefit of playing a tough schedule, though, which is being reaped by Florida State, UCLA, LSU and, as you’ll see in a moment, Hawai’i.

But the Waves will get their first real tests this upcoming weekend, when they’ll see LMU and Cal Poly, two teams who will be contending with Pepperdine for a West Region spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Upcoming matches: Long Beach City, LMU, Cal Poly. 

Gabriela Griego-Irvine Valley College beach volleyball-Pepperdine beach volleyball-Brook Bauer
IVC’s Gabriela Griego jousts with Pepperdine’s Brook Bauer/Jim Wolf photography

6. Hawai’i (3-2, previously No. 7)
There were a lot of unknowns with Hawai’i coming into this season. With only three seniors on the roster, coach Jeff Hall had some maneuvering to do in terms of who went on what court and with what partner. His top three courts remained the same throughout the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic — Morgan Martin and Pani Napoleon on No. 1, Julia Scoles and Maia Hannemann on No. 2, Amy Ozee and Brooke Van Sickle on No. 3 — and he rotated a few different combinations on courts four and five. For the most part, it all worked.

UCLA needed a comeback to beat the SandBows on Saturday, and they followed up that loss with a win over LSU, quickly establishing themselves as a program that can contend with anyone this year. Martin and Napoleon were great on one, losing two narrow matches to UCLA and LSU; Hannemann shined as a freshman alongside the experienced Scoles, winning four of five matches; Ozee and Van Sickle also only lost close matches to UCLA and LSU.

With those three courts alone, Hawai’i can beat anyone, and the Bows have proven they can.

Upcoming matches: St. Mary’s, Arizona State, Utah, Stanford. 

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

7. Loyola Marymount (2-1, previously No. 8)
LMU’s season-opening loss is the perfect example of a match that looks like a blowout — it was 5-0 in favor of UCLA — but was actually quite close. While the Bruins did, indeed, sweep the Lions, three courts went to three sets, and courts two and three won the first set for LMU.

That, and court No. 1 of Reka Orsi Toth and Selina Marolf pushed Simo and Van Winkle to 22-24 in the second set. It wasn’t a coin flip of a match, but it was evidence enough that LMU’s WCC title a year ago was no fluke, and the Lions can prove as much this week when it sees Pepperdine and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

Upcoming matches: Pepperdine, Cal Poly

Loyola beach volleyball 2/12/2020-Emma Doud
Emma Doud digs at the WCC championships/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

8. Cal Poly (2-2, previously No. 6)
Before y’all break out the pitchforks, a disclaimer: I am well aware that in Gulf Shores for the NCAA Championship, a minimum of three East Coast teams will be present. This is not an exact model for Gulf Shores. This list is who I think are the best eight teams in the country, and, to be honest, four or five teams have made a legitimate case to be in this No. 8 spot, and I just think if Poly played all of those teams 10 times, they’d win the most. That was my test.

Stetson even beat Cal Poly on Saturday, and had the Hatters taken care of business against Houston Baptist later in the day, they’d be No. 7, and LMU would be 8, and Cal Poly wouldn’t be here at all. But Stetson did lose to Houston Baptist, and Florida International lost to Georgia State, and Georgia State was swept by FAU, and Florida International beat FAU, and TCU lost to Stetson, and this is all very confusing.

So, why did Poly get the nod over the remaining East Coast contenders? The ever-ambiguous talent and potential. Poly’s roster is replete with athletes who are excellent athletes and accomplished volleyball players, but haven’t been on the beach a whole heck of a lot. Court one and court four blockers Torrey and Adlee Van Winden have both been off the beach due to injuries, court two blocker Mariah Whalen is an indoor transfer who showed glimpses of massive potential in Tallahassee, and court three’s Emily Sonny is still recovering from a shoulder injury.

No, this team is not perfect just yet, but the ceiling is high for Poly, should the roster develop in similar fashion as it did a year ago, when coach Todd Rogers took a team that started 3-5 and turned it into a Big West Champion and NCAA Championship-contending team.

You can proceed to break out your pitchforks in the comments section below.

Upcoming matches: Pepperdine, LMU

First four out:
Grand Canyon (4-0)
Stetson (3-2)
Florida International (3-1)
Cal (1-1)

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