The NCAA beach volleyball season has begun. It’s not just any season, either, but a historic one, the first in which the field for the NCAA Championships will be doubled, from eight teams to 16.

It begins all over, of course, from Bakersfield, Caifornia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, from Arizona to Irvine, and everywhere in between. But where the season truly begins, where meaningful matches will be played, are on opposite ends of the country, in Tallahassee, Florida, and Oahu, Hawai’i. Seven teams you will find in these rankings will be competing in one of those two tournaments, the first of many litmus tests to come in this sprint of a season.

As for these rankings, a brief descriptor on what they are, and what they are not. What they are is solely my opinion, based on observations from the previous few years, chatting with coaches, and perusing a tremendous amount of data procured by founder Mike Placek. What they are is a little peek into each of the teams I believe will be very good this season, and I ranked 16 because that’s the number we’ll see in Gulf Shores in May.

What these rankings are not is anything official. Official rankings are those of the AVCA coaches and CollegeBeachVB Committee, of which I am a member among many. But NCAA beach volleyball is just so dang fun, and so replete with talent, and I love writing about it. So enjoy the primer, and enjoy the season.

No. 1 USC

The roster in Los Angeles is perhaps the greatest embarrassment of riches NCAA beach volleyball has ever seen. USC’s lineup is akin to Marvel’s Avengers, replete with court one talents all the way down to court six. In Tina Graudina there is a 6-foot blocker who finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympic Games, sponsored by Red Bull — thank you very much, NIL — and is seeded directly into the main draws of the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Elite 16s. In Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple, there are World Champions. In graduate students Sammy Slater, Julia Scoles, Hailey Harward, and Sunny Villapando, there is more starting experience than their young rivals across town at UCLA have on nearly their entire roster. In twins Audrey and Nicole Nourse, there is a dynamic duo with a type of team chemistry that cannot be taught. And, of course, in coach Dain Blanton, there is an Olympic gold medal of experience. Keep an eye on this USC team, for you’ll be seeing all of these names well into the future as professionals.

Players to watch: Sunny Villapando, Sammy Slater, Hailey Harward, Tina Graudina, Megan Kraft, Delaynie Maple, Audrey Nourse, Julia Scoles, Nicole Nourse.

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Latvia’s Tina Graudina quietly celebrates a block with a smile/Ed Chan,

No. 2 UCLA

What’s amazing about this UCLA team is that it lost only Savvy Simo and Jacqueline Quade from the NCAA runner-up team from a year ago, and yet it’s still so young. With 15 underclassmen on the roster, the Bruins are the very antithesis of the old ladies over at USC. Stepping into leadership roles for UCLA will be a trio of sophomores in Devon Newberry, Lexy Denaburg, and Rileigh Powers, though they are likely to be without the steady services of junior Lindsey Sparks, who is still recovering from a brutal knee injury at the Pottstown Rumble. The Twin Towers, Abby and Tessa Van Winkle, will provide tremendous size at the net, as both stand 6-foot-2, as will senior Lea Monkhouse. Adding depth on the defensive end is spark plug Jaden Whitmarsh, who won an enormous, victory-sealing match on court five against LSU in the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA Championship, and Hawai’i transfer Pani Napoleon.

Players to watch: Rileigh Powers, Devon Newberry, Abby Van Winkle, Tessa Van Winkle, Lindsey Sparks, Pani Napoleon, Lexy Denaburg, Lea Monkhouse.

Lexy Denaburg
Lexy Denaburg/Mark Rigney

No. 3: Florida State

They’re perennial winners, these Seminoles. The owners of five consecutive CCSA crowns, Florida State is poised, once again, to make a run at its first NCAA Championship, and is forever the leading candidate to bring the title to the East Region for the first time ever.

Returning from a team that finished 33-6 and ranked fifth in the country are seven starters, including Alaina Chacon, Maddie Anderson, and Keara Rutz. Bolstering the roster are a pair of excellent transfers in Brook Bauer, who played court one for Pepperdine, and Jordan Polo, who was on court two for Cal. While star blocker Torrey Van Winden is out for the season with a knee injury, Florida State has also added highly touted freshman Anna Long.

Players to watch: Alaina Chacon, Maddie Anderson, Keara Rutz, Brook Bauer, Jordan Polo, Anna Long.

Alaina Chacon
Alaina Chacon/Tim Britt,

No. 4: TCU

TCU has already won the award for most ironic team of the season, in that they were nearly unanimously dubbed the “Surprise Team of the Year” by the committee. How is that possible?

Because the moves made by coach Hector Gutierrez this off-season were the biggest of any program in the country. Building upon a team that finished 26-10 and made its first NCAA Championship appearance in program history, the Frogs added four star transfers in Megan Muret (UCLA), Alexis Filippone (Pepperdine), Sutton Mactavish (Pepperdine) and Kaylie McHugh (Tulane). Meanwhile, Spanish freshman Ana Vergara is making the trip across the pond.

The addition of five immediate starters aside, TCU is also returning nine starters from its historic team from a year ago, including court one duo Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, as well as sophomores Maria Gonzalez and Rochelle Scott, and senior Hailey Brockett.

So the surprise, to quote Big Daddy, has been wasted: TCU is no longer surprising anyone.

Players to watch: Daniela Alvarez, Tania Moreno, Hailey Brockett, Rochelle Scott, Maria Gonzalez, Megan Muret, Alexis Filippone, Kaylie McHugh, Sutton Mactavish, Ana Vergara.

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TCU coach Hector Gutierrez talks with Cassie House in a match against Cal Poly in March/Sharon Ellman photo

No. 5: Loyola Marymount

Coach John Mayer said earlier this pre-season that this LMU team might be the best he’s had in his seven years at the Los Angeles school. And in a classic Mayer moment, he said “that doesn’t mean you’re going to be good. I was never that talented but I could still get some wins. There’s grit and creativity and other stuff that you gotta work on.”

In the past seven years, his Lions have had an awfully good penchant for finding that creativity and grit. LMU is now the king of the West Coast Conference, upending Pepperdine with two straight WCC titles and a program high 31 wins in 2021. Returning from that team is Italian star Reka Orsi Toth, Selina Marolf, and Megan Rice, who packs one of the hardest swings on the beach. The Lions also did well on the transfer portal, hauling in top talents such as Macy Gordon, a former court one defender for Cal Poly, Florida State’s Avery Poppinga, Arizona State’s Emily Anderson, Alabama Birmingham’s Abbey Thorup, and Marine Kinna, who played indoors for Lynn University.

Although Mayer didn’t have to pluck more talent off the transfer portal, per se, he did continue hauling experience on his coaching staff, hiring gold medalist winning coach Angie Akers to replace Betsi Flint, who is focusing on her playing career with Kelly Claes, as the assistant, and bringing on AVP veteran Kelly Reeves as the volunteer.

Players to watch: Reka Orsi Toth, Selina Marolf, Megan Rice, Macy Gordon, Avery Poppinga, Emily Anderson, Abbey Thorup.

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LMU’s Reka Orsi Toth goes horizontal for a dig/Mark Rigney photo

No. 6: Grand Canyon

I’m bullish on the Lopes this year. Perhaps overly so, but time will tell.

GCU finished the 2021 season ranked No. 11 in the country, backed by an 18-11 record that was about as strong as it appears: The Lopes beat teams they should beat, and didn’t suffer any particularly bad losses save for a season-opener against Arizona, which isn’t exactly a terrible loss. The Lopes were a decent team in 2021, and returning from that decent team are seven starters, including Teagan DeFalco, Anaya Evans, Madi Relaz, and Allanis Navas.

Like LMU and TCU, the Lopes made hay on the transfer portal, hauling in five excellent players who should start immediately. Abbie Hughes went 25-5 competing on court three for FIU, Dana Roskic 26-8 on court one for North Florida, Jess Vastine 26-6 between courts three and four for South Carolina, Meagan McCall 18-11 on three and four for Georgia State, and Cami Sanchez, who won six of nine matches in a short tenure at UCLA. Adding to that depth are freshmen All-Americans Jessica Drake and Samaya Morin.

That’s an awful lot of talent and experience to add to a team that was developing in both talent and experience.

Players to watch: Teagan DeFalco, Anaya Evans, Madi Relaz, Allanis Navas, Abbie Hughes, Dana Roskic, Jess Vastine, Meagan McCall, Cami Sanchez, Jessica Drake, Samaya Morin.

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GCU’s Teagan DeFalco lays out for a dig/Tim Britt,

No. 7: Stanford

The 2021 season was a historic one for Stanford in that the Cardinal reached the NCAA Championship for the first time in program history, climbing from being ranked No. 19 at the beginning of the season to a program record No. 7 to finish it. There is little reason to think the momentum would halt now.

The Cardinal have eight starters back from the 23-13 squad of 2021, including Charlie Ekstrom, she of one of the mightiest arms on the beach; Xolani Hodel and Kate Reilly, who finished fourth at the U19 World Championships; Maddi Kriz, and Maya Harvey. Those veterans will help lead an excellent group of five freshmen headed by Camdyn Doucet and Emma Morris.

Players to watch: Charlie Ekstrom, Xolani Hodel, Kate Reilly, Maddi Kriz, Maya Harvey, Camdyn Doucet

Charlie Ekstrom-Stanford beach volleyball-NCAA beach volleyball
Stanford’s Charlie Ekstrom releases her emotions/Ed Chan,

No. 8: Cal

Cal is in a grouping with Stanford, Cal Poly, and GCU as teams that have all of the capabilities to make a huge breakthrough, and are perpetually on the cusp of doing so, but just haven’t — yet. As the sport grows and rosters deepen, more programs are climbing, able to compete with virtually any team in the country. Cal is one of those teams. The Bears went 16-13 in 2021 and finished ranked ninth, but they still have loads of talent. Mima Mirkovich is an absolute star, and sophomore Ava Mann, junior Ainsley Radell, and sophomore Maya Gessner will all be solid.

On top of that, Megan Owusu, who is back in the head coaching seat, hauled in a talented crop of transfers in Brazilian Ana Costa, formerly at Stetson, LSU’s Natalie Martin, and Florida State’s Lexi McKeown.

Players to watch: Mima Mirkovich, Ana Costa, Lexi McKeown, Ava Mann, Ainsley Radell, Maya Gessner

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FSU’s Lexi McKeown, now with Cal, bump sets/Tim Britt photo

No. 9: FAU

The sleeping giant of the East! Like everyone, FAU was robbed by the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, but few were on such a historic track as the Owls. They jumped out to an 11-1 start, notching a pair of wins over Georgia State and another over Stetson. And then, of course, the season was halted, though they continued going strong in 2021, finishing 20-10, the second most wins in program history.

Nine starters are back from that team, including one of the best court one pairs in the country in Erica Brok and Mackenzie Morris, the winningest pair in program history (they have 71 wins together). Junior Ellie Austin and senior Jillenne Cangelosi, too, are strong returners, and coach Capri Grotowski brought in two graduate transfers in Virginia’s Christine Jarman and 6-foot former Illinois outside hitter Mica Allison.

Players to watch: Erica Brok, Mackenzie Morris, Ellie Austin, Jillenne Cangelosi

No. 10: Cal Poly

Cal Poly has been threatening to break into the top tier of programs in the country for five years or so. The Mustangs won 27 matches in 2018, 25 in 2019, were 7-2 in 2020, and won another 24 in 2021, where they qualified for the NCAA Championship and took a win over Stanford. They’re perpetually dangerous.

The question is: Can they make the jump from perpetually dangerous and into the same stratosphere as a USC and a UCLA?

Coach Todd Rogers will have seven starters back from his 2021 team, including veterans Tia Miric and Jayelin Lombard, both of whom were named First Team All-Conference last year. Sophomore defender Sam Strah and junior 6-foot-2 blocker Eleonore Johansen are back as well and should add consistency to the lineup.

Graduate transfer Addison Hermstad will bring high-level experience as well, as she is coming off a 29-8 season on court two for Tulane. Likely stepping into bigger roles will be Delaney Peranich and Piper Naess, who combined for a 13-12 record a year ago as part-time starters.

Players to watch: Tia Miric, Jayelin Lombard, Sam Strah, Eleonore Johansen

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Cal Poly’s Tia Miric celebrates her match win against UCLA/Ed Chan,

No. 11: Pepperdine

To many, Pepperdine will probably seem way too high on this list. The Waves are ranked No. 13 by the committee and No. 14 by the AVCA coaches. But my wife, Delaney, who is the full-time assistant coach, nearly kicked me out of the house when she saw that I had her Waves as low as No. 11, and I’d much rather have an upset reader than an even angrier wife.

So they’re No. 11, which is honestly where I’d put them whether I’m married into the program or not.

Pepperdine has had a weird few years. The Waves were just 2-5 during the COVID-shortened season, and in 2021 suffered their worst season in program history, finishing 14-17, missing on the National Championships for the first time ever.

It should be noted that of those 14 losses, eight came at the hands of USC or UCLA, who would finish No. 1 and 2 in the nation. But they also dropped matches to St. Mary’s, Cal, and Arizona, so the Waves were, as Dennis Green might say, who we thought they were.

There’s only going up from there, and Pepperdine does have talent to take it back to Gulf Shores. Senior Melanie Paul is tremendous, and Simone Priebe and Mary Sinclair, both of whom stand 5-foot-11, are solid presences at the net. Seven freshman and graduate transfer Rio Frohoff, who went 50-45 at Tulane, add depth to the lineup, as does Madison Shields, a libero on the indoor team who has been impressive in the pre-season.

Players to watch: Melanie Paul, Simone Priebe, Mary Sinclair, Madison Shields, Juju Quintero.

Pepperdine beach volleyball-Mary Sinclair
Pepperdine’s Mary Sinclair celebrates/Mark Rigney photo

No. 12: Hawaii

It’s possible that no college beach program was hit harder by COVID than Hawai’i’s. In 2019, the Bows finished 28-11 — their third straight 25-plus-win season — made the finals of the Big West Championship, and finished fourth at the NCAA Championship. They were likewise rolling in 2020: 7-2 with a quality win over LSU.

Then came COVID.

Hawai’i lost its longtime head coach in Jeff Hall and still hasn’t removed the interim tag from Evan Silberstein, who will be the head coach this season. The Bows finished 17-11 in 2021, their lowest win total since 2013, when they played only 12 matches.

Yet it’s still Hawai’i, still a traditional power in this sport, and there is still talent aplenty. Eight starters return from the 2021 team, including Brooke Van Sickle, Amber Igiede, Jamie Santer, and Kylin Loker. The Bows hauled in two graduate transfers in Sarah Penner, who led Gonzaga in kills all four seasons in Spokane, and Hali Galloway, who finished her indoor career at Westmont College with more than 1,000 career kills.

Players to watch: Brooke Van Sickle, Amber Igiede, Jamie Santer, Kylin Loker.

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Hawai’i’s Kylin Loker tries to push through the block from Cal Poly’s Mariah Whalen/Jim Wolf photo

No. 13: Long Beach

Few are able to do more with less resources than Long Beach coach Mike Campbell. The 49ers are just always competitive, always able to beat top flight programs here and there despite losing the arms race to them. And Long Beach is primed to do so again this season.

Campbell will have almost his entire lineup back from a 2021 team that went 19-14, including veteran defender Mari Molina, sophomore Skyler Germann, and senior Nicci Reinking.

It’s been five years since Long Beach made the trip to Gulf Shores. This could very well be the season that breaks that streak.

Players to watch: Mari Molina, Skyler Germann, Nicci Reinking

Mari Molina
Mari Molina digs/Stephen Burns, PNV photography

No. 14: LSU

Nobody really knows what to make of this LSU team. It’s an entirely new-look squad, with only two starters returning from the 2021 team that was ranked, at times, No. 1 in the country. But it’s LSU, and it’s Russell Brock, and the Tigers thrive in the role of underdog. Seniors Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope and Kelli Greene-Agnew should be excellent, and Brock brought in three graduate transfers who should also make immediate impacts. Bella Baumann formerly played on court one for GCU, while Holly Carlton is a 6-foot-7 All-American who played indoors at Florida, and Kylie Deberg is a 6-foot-4 transfer from Missouri who led LSU in kills this past indoors season.

LSU might have lost a lot, but the Tigers are reloading for 2022.

Players to watch: Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope, Kelli Greene-Agnew, Bella Baumann

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LSU’s Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope goes all our for a ball at the NCAA Championship/Chris Parent

No. 15: Georgia State

Georgia State is sort of like the Long Beach State of the East: Always competitive, always dangerous, still searching for a breakthrough season into the upper-echelons. The Panthers were solid in 2021, as they always are, winning 23 matches, finishing the season ranked No. 19. Seniors Eden Hawes, Maddy Delmonte, and Kelly Dorn all return for one more year in Atlanta, and coach Beth Van Fleet brought in four graduate transfers, highlighted by Stetson’s Yasmin Kuck and Florida Gulf Coast’s Kayla Whetstone.

Players to watch: Eden Hawes, Maddy Delmonte, Kelly Dorn

No. 16: Stetson

Stetson has quickly become one of the NCAA’s leading international pipelines. On the Hatters roster this year are players from Norway, the Czech Republic, Canada, Poland, Latvia, Israel, England, and Brazil, and coach Kristina Hernandez’s new assistant, Jae Lyn Visscher, is a Canadian as well!

Hernandez’s global recruiting has paid off for the past several years, as Stetson has been a consistent power in the East since first making the National Championship in 2014. This year the Hatters will be similarly competitive, as seven starters return from the 2021 team that finished ranked No. 16 in the country. Sophomore Gabriella Bramante and 5-foot-7 junior Shae Henson will be reliable for Hernandez, and Latvian freshman Anete Namike has played at a high level overseas, finishing fourth in the U21 World Championships.

Players to watch: Gabriella Bramante, Shae Henson, Anete Namike

First four out
South Carolina

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