John Mayer thought that maybe, just maybe, his LMU Lions had done enough in 2019 to make the cut. That when Veronica Nederend and Emma Doud hung on for a victory that gave LMU the West Coast Conference Championships title, the school’s first, that the Lions had done enough to earn a bid to the 2019 NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships.
The argument had been convincing enough. LMU had assembled the best season in school history, with 27 wins to only 11 losses, including back-to-back victories over Pepperdine, a blue blood program and perennial power.
But whose spot could the Lions take? It couldn’t be USC, the dynastic force in the sport, which had just claimed the Pac-12 title. Nor could it be eventual-champion UCLA, the NCAA’s leader all season. Pepperdine, too, had established itself as virtual shoo-in, while Cal Poly and Hawai’i had both assembled fantastic seasons in the Big West.
Was the push too little, too late? Or had it come just in time?
When selection Sunday came one week later, it proved to be the former.
“I remember thinking ‘Gosh that’s kind of ridiculous,’ ” Mayer said. “We’d never been, and I wondered how do we expand this thing?”
The wondering is over. Last month, the NCAA officially approved the expansion of the beach volleyball national championship, doubling the total number of teams from eight to 16 when they gather the first week of May in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
“Our leaders in Division I are devoted to ensuring the best quality access to NCAA national championships,” Council chair Shane Lyons, athletics director at West Virginia, said in a statement. “We’re thrilled to immediately expand the National Collegiate Beach Volleyball and Women’s Ice Hockey Championship brackets as our committees continue to discuss improvements to these championship experiences.”
The alacrity with which the expansion has come is at once surprising and a long time in the making. In 2019, not only was LMU left out, but eighth-seeded Stetson stunned No. 1 USC in the first round of the tournament, marking the first time in the young sport’s history for such an upset to occur. Schools around the country were catching up to the West Coast powers. It was, the thinking went, only a matter of time before the championship was expanded to include more teams, a nod to the growing depth and talent in the sport.
But then, of course, came the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the last half of the 2020 season, including the NCAA Championship. Many universities were forced to shutter entire programs. Schools such as Hawai’i had to gut select sports of their funding, including beach volleyball. Suddenly, having an eight-team championship, after a year without having one at all, felt like a blessing.
“(The fall of 2020) was the longest fall of my life,” Florida State coach Brooke Niles said. “There was just so much stress and you could see it in the kids. I just felt so bad for them.”
The 2021 season provided a brilliant contrast to the gloomy, pandemic-ridden year of 2020. Not only were the programs back to full rosters, but with so many returners, and such an influx of young talent, the country was populated by super teams, making for one of the best products the NCAA could have asked for.
Now, the NCAA is simply asking for more of it — double, to be exact.
“I was kinda surprised that they jumped right on it,” LSU coach Russell Brock said, “and said ‘Hey we’re going to 16 and it’ll be this year.’ I do think the quality of programs is deeper and there are more left out in the eight-team format where you’re starting to say that there are eight in, but there are four out that are just as close to being in as out.”
While the expansion of the field has more or less been met with unanimous praise, questions still remain. The format is still undetermined, though it is likely going to be single-elimination for the first round before resuming the traditional double-elimination format it has taken since it became an NCAA championship sport. There is still no official word on how the additional eight teams will be selected, and if there will continue to be a quota on West Coast and East Coast teams.
The language in the NCAA’s release posited that there will be automatic qualifiers, earned via teams winning their respective conference tournaments, similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. If this is the case, it’s likely that six teams will earn berths via their conference championships: Pac-12, Big West, WCC, CCSA, ASUN, and Conference USA.
The remaining 10, then, would be additional at-large bids.
“If you’re in the West Coast, it’s still going to be a dog fight,” Mayer said. “There’s a lot of good teams.”
And if the single-elimination opening round format holds true, it places an even higher value on the regular season. Now, not only do you want to punch your ticket to Gulf Shores — you want to ensure the highest seed possible when you do.
“That’s going to be brutal,” Mayer said. “You’re going to battle for a higher seed to determine who you play first.”
And if 2019 was proof enough, as parity has spread, no team, not even USC’s 2022 roster, which resembles that of the Avengers — Tina Graudina, Megan Kraft, Hailey Harward, Julia Scoles, Sammy Slater, Delaynie Maple, the Nourse twins — is safe.
“I think we deserve 16 and I think it’s going to help us because everyone’s always going ‘Oh, that team would have lost to this team if they would have got in’ and that solves that debate,” Niles said. “There’s still that top couple that’s a little bit above the rest, and after that it’s a blood bath and the rankings are really difficult because a lot of East Coast teams don’t play West Coast teams and this gives a lot of opportunity to get that championship feel because our sport is really relevant in college and a lot of teams don’t get to experience that championship quest.
“And then there’s underdogs, and that’s one of the things that I love about the NCAA basketball tournament: Underdogs can upset a top seed and keep moving on.”
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