As the college-beach-volleyball season spins out of the far turn into the home stretch, we project who’s probably in the field for the NCAA Championships while previewing the remaining six conference tournaments.
Providing an insider’s look at the selection process is committee chair Julie Cribbs.
Meanwhile, the road to an automatic bid by potential bracket-buster Long Beach State is detailed.
And our weekly honor roll includes conference postseason awards and pairs of the week.
What might happen on Selection Sunday
When the selection committee convenes on Sunday to choose and seed the 17 teams that will compete in the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship next week, the most pressing question looks to be: How powerful will the “Power 2” be?
The collegiate beach game has a distinct hierarchy, and at the top sits the nine-team Pac 12, home of every NCAA champion since the sport received official sanction in 2016, and the six-team CCSA, which has provided the runners-up in three of the six tournaments.
A perusal of the latest AVCA national top 20 tells us that the Pac-12 has six ranked teams, five in the first 13, and the CCSA numbers five in the top 16. Each of the “Power 2” receives an automatic bid for its tournament winner, so if the six-person committee were of a mind to, all eight of the at-large bids it will award might come from those leagues. Both have inherent advantages in the important “strength of schedule” criterion, since the members play against each other and their top squads typically compete in intersectional crossovers.
Below those two on the NCAA food chain are the Big West and the WCC. Both leagues enjoy programs with winning traditions that typically can be found in the national poll. But they don’t have the strength in numbers. Will either conference get bids beyond their automatics? In the case of the Big West, probably. For the WCC, probably not.
The other five leagues — the Atlantic Sun, Sun Belt, Conference USA, Southland and Ohio Valley — likely will have to be content with the automatic bids that go to conference tournament champions, and two of them almost certainly will be shuttled into the play-in game that will determine the No. 16 seed.
The following teams from the Pac-12 likely have locked up bids to the single-elimination Big Beach Dance in Gulf Shores, Alabama, next Wednesday (the play-in) and Friday through Sunday: No. 1 UCLA (a two-time NCAA champion), No. 3 USC (a four-time NCAA title-holder), No. 8 Stanford and No. 9 California. Seemingly “checking all the boxes” as shoo-ins from the CCSA are No. 2 TCU (31-1), No. 4 Florida State (29-6), No. 6 LSU (24-10) and No. 7 Grand Canyon (23-6).
With seven automatics and likely at least eight teams from the “Power 2,” that leaves two at-large bids for the selection committee to mull. Conventional wisdom says that No. 11 Hawaii (27-8) probably is in. But the Rainbow Wahine failed to win the Big West tournament on home sand in Honolulu, being eliminated in the semifinal by 15-25 Cal Poly, and have an April loss to C-USA’s Florida International. However, victories over ranked LSU, Cal and Washington (all but 3-2 margins) work in Hawaii’s favor.
So, we’re likely down to one at-large team. If favorites win out in the remaining conference tournaments, the logical contenders would be No. 13 Washington from the Pac-12 or No. 16 South Carolina (19-10) from the CCSA. Perhaps Florida International, Florida Atlantic or Pepperdine have Hail Mary shots.
Breaking down the conference tournaments
The first three automatic bids to the NCAA Championship were decided when No. 10 Long Beach State (24-14) won the Big West tournament, No. 17 Stetson (22-14) claimed the Atlantic Sun and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (24-9) took the Southland.
Six automatic bids will be determined in conference tournaments this week. All of the competitions will be double-elimination until the title dual except in Conference USA, which will use a true double-elimination format.
Pac-12: The nine-team tourney at the Stanford Beach Volleyball Stadium got underway on Wednesday and will conclude on Friday. Pac-12 Networks will cover all of the action. So far the seeding has held true to form. In the first-day dual that might influence the selection committee the most, fourth-seeded Stanford (27-10) rolled over fifth-seeded Washington (20-13) 3-0, meaning the Huskies have digging to do in the contenders bracket. Top seed UCLA (33-2) will meet the host Cardinal and No. 2 seed USC (27-3) will play third seed Cal (26-8) in the winners bracket Thursday.
CCSA: First-round byes in the six-team draw Thursday through Saturday at John Hunt Park in Huntsville, Alabama, were awarded to No. 1 seed TCU and No. 2 seed Florida State. All of the teams except Missouri State figure to be on the selection committee’s radar, but an upset or two by fifth-seeded South Carolina seemingly would enhance its chances. All of the CCSA duals will be streamed live on the Bally Live app or on the AVP Beach Volleyball channel on YouTube.
WCC: Loyola Marymount perhaps provided a preview of this tournament’s final when it nipped rival Pepperdine 3-2 during a tri-meet on home sand last weekend, during which the Lions also topped Washington 4-1 and the Huskies defeated the Waves 3-2. LMU is seeded first and Pepperdine second in the seven-team WCC event Thursday and Friday at Ocean Park Beach in Santa Monica. It’s pretty much a two-horse race, and if the No. 19 Waves (16-12) were to turn the tables on Loyola Marymount, the No. 5 Lions (25-8) have compiled a resume worthy of an at-large bid.
Sun Belt: Top-seeded and battle-tested Georgia State solidly is the favorite in the inaugural eight-team tourney Thursday through Saturday, which will be held in conjunction with the CCSA’s in Huntsville. This figures to be a one-bid league, and if the No. 14 Sandy Panthers (16-16) suffer the misfortune of being eliminated without breaking even, they would finish with a sub-.500 record and thus be ineligible for an NCAA at-large bid. No. 2 seed College of Charleston (19-10) and third-seeded Coastal Carolina (22-11) are logical upsetters. Longer shot Louisiana Monroe is seeded fifth despite a 30-2 record, compiled while playing a schedule devoid of nationally ranked teams. ESPN+ will stream all duals.
Conference USA: Three teams slotted between 12 and 18 nationally are among the field of six that will gather Thursday through Saturday at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, yet this, too, seems to project as a one-bid conference. Top-seeded Florida International, ranked No. 12 with a 17-14 record, and second seed Florida International, No. 15 at 16-13, played daunting schedules against the top teams in the country and have earned first-round byes here. Third seed Tulane, No. 18 at 22-8, did not play quite as difficult a slate.
Ohio Valley: UT Martin (24-8) will host the six-team event, and with victories in early April over Georgia State and Stetson, is the top seed and prohibitive favorite. Second-seeded Chattanooga (17-13) dropped all 15 matches in three dual losses against the Skyhawks. ESPN+ will stream the OVC duals Thursday through Saturday.
How the decisions are made
With the announcement of the NCAA field coming up the day after the completion of the last conference tournaments, we turned to Julie Cribbs, the chairperson of the selection committee, to provide insight on that process.
Cribbs, an administrator at LSU, has been on the committee that includes three administrators and three coaches for four years. The beach tournament is in its second season of an expanded draw (in 2022, it doubled from eight to 16) and the first in a full single-elimination format. A 17th team was added this year when the Sun Belt sanctioned the sport and gained an automatic bid.
“It’s a little bit different this year because of expanding to 17 teams, nine automatic qualifiers and eight at-larges,” Cribbs said. “We will seed those 1 through 17. We will do our best to avoid first-round conference matches, which is a little tough with beach just because the Pac-12, for example, is really heavy and powerful.
“We don’t want to penalize a team, if you will, just to avoid a conference matchup because beach has a small group” of participating schools compared to a sport such as basketball.
Cribbs said the committee uses a nifty computer program that quickly provides information on the four selection criteria.
“We look at four things: Head-to-head competition, [records] vs. common opponents, then your strength of schedule and the overall record has to be above .500,” she said, while noting that none of the first three factors were necessarily more important than the others. “All of the factors work together.”
Also new for 2023 is the elimination of the requirement of having at-large teams from different regions.
“Taking away the East and West split-up really is going to help spread things out,” Cribbs said. “It’s no longer structured where you have to have ‘x’ number of teams from the East and ‘x’ from the West, when you might have more strong teams, for example, in the West than in the East.
“As a committee, we can really look at those top 20 (candidates) and see where everybody shakes out. We have a Stetson, for example, who is 18th. They were kind of on the bubble, anyway, and (after winning the Atlantic Sun) they’re in the AQ and they’re good. The 17 teams, the AQs, getting some of these teams that haven’t been in there, having the single-elimination, those things are all going to be huge factors for these powerhouse teams that have made it through to the finals or at least the semifinals every year. You can see their brows sweating a little bit with the single-elimination.”
Cribbs said that getting new faces into the beach tournament was important for a growing sport and that single-elimination might help break the stranglehold of the established powers.
“I was lucky enough to be in the conversations when we when we went from an eight-team bracket to the 16 (in 2022),” she said. “Now you have the AQs, the Cinderella teams, if you will, that can come in and compete. The power teams won’t be able to depend on bouncing back in double-elimination.“
A frequent request heard from coaches interviewed by VolleyballMag.com this spring was that a formal computer-generated RPI metric would be welcome in beach volleyball. Cribbs didn’t dismiss the possibility, but neither did she give it a full endorsement.
“I can’t really speak to the RPI system, I don’t have deep knowledge of how they choose that,” she said. “For us on the committee, we really do have just the three criteria (with variables), with one of them being strength of schedule, which is (much like) the RPI.”
Freshmen fuel Long Beach State’s surge
“Recent form” is a tried-and-true tenet of sports handicapping, even if it isn’t one of the four official criteria the selection committee will use to put together the field for the upcoming NCAA Championships.
Big West tournament champion Long Beach State started 2-10 out of the gate but has won 22 of its last 26 duals. A closer examination of The Beach’s record shows that 10 of their 14 losses came by 3-2 margins and the teams (all ranked) that eked out those close victories were USC (twice), Loyola Marymount, Grand Canyon, California, Stanford, Hawaii (three times) and Pepperdine.
Led by a precocious pair of fast-rising freshmen, Long Beach State turned the tables on the host Rainbow Wahine during the Big West event, which helped lead to an automatic bid to the NCAAs, its first appearance at the nationals since going uno-dos adios in 2017. The Beach has no bad losses on its resume and loom as dangerous live underdogs in what likely will be the bottom half of the bracket.
Coach Mike Campbell likes his team’s chances as peaking-at-the-right-time upset threats.
“Winning the conference definitely helps our seeding a bit, but we likely will be in the lower half of the bracket, perhaps 10, 11, 12,” said Campbell, who consistently has put Long Beach State in the national rankings during his nine seasons at the helm. “But that’s a lot different than 14, 15, 16. It doesn’t have to be one of those top 3-4 right out of the gate.
“Our conference tournament was a week ahead of everybody else, so we get to sit here with the bid, take care of our bodies and our minds, rest and recover, and get to practice a bit, which is really nice. It gives us five days to work on things in a calm setting. We’ve always been in the hunt, nationally ranked, but this year, this team feels a little different. There’s definitely more of a buzz, more of an energy.”
The Beach historically has a “hard pattern” of losing 3-2 to higher-ranked teams, Campbell noted, “but what’s different this year is that we have gotten to match point. Ten of our losses were 3-2, and out of those, there were seven or eight when we were right there, we had it, we just needed to get over that hump, that hurdle. So as a coach, it’s been easy to reframe those losses and take away a lot of the positives.”
The difference-makers in that critical victory over Hawaii were freshmen Malia Gementara and Taylor Hagenah, San Diego-area products who have climbed the ladder from 3s to 2s to 1s, and scored the dual-clinching point by winning the third set 16-14 over the touted top pair of Kaylee Glagau and Brooke Van Sickle. The 5-foot-6 Gementara and 5-foot-11 Hagenah were named national pair of the week by the AVCA/CBVB.
The freshmen have set a program record for match victories in a season and are 33-5 overall (12-4 at No. 3, 16-1 at No. 2 and 5-0 on the No. 1 court). Campbell will keep them as his top pair in Gulf Shores.
“Taylor and Malia have developed a really strong chemistry,” he said. “They’re just steady. They don’t get rattled too much and they’ve gained experience in how to side out. Taylor is a great blocker, great puller, good instincts. Malia has a ton of speed and range on defense. We started the year with them as 3s, but we couldn’t hide them any longer.”
The pair has a “simplistic game plan,” Campbell noted, that “allows their skill sets of block defense from Taylor and scramble defense from Malia to really shine. When we went up to the Center of Effort Challenge at Cal Poly (in mid-April) and beat the 2s from Florida State, LMU and USC, that’s when I knew. They’re just so consistent that the second one of our opponents gives us an opening, it turns into 2, 3, 4 points just because the girls know how to bleed a team.”
Weekly honor roll
Postseason awards rolled in from several conferences.
CCSA: TCU’s Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, unanimous choice as pair of the year (named top pair for the second consecutive season); Hector Gutierrez of TCU, coach of the year (for the second season in a row); and TCU’s Anhelina Khmil, freshman of the year.
Atlantic Sun: Stetson’s Carolina Ferraris and Anete Namike, pair of the year; Madison Espy of North Florida, freshman of the year; and Doug Wright of North Florida, coach of the year.
Sun Belt: Georgia State’s Angel Ferary and Bella Ferary, pair of the year; North Carolina Wilmington’s Gabby LaPata, freshman of the year; Lila Bordis of Georgia State, newcomer of the year; and Beth Van Fleet, Georgia State, coach of the year.
Southland: Houston Christian’s Maddie Butters and Alison Stanfill, pair of the year; Kristin Bobay,Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, freshman of the year; Chloe Tome, A&M-Corpus Christi, newcomer of the year; and Gayle Stammer, A&M-Corpus Christi, coach of the year.
Also, conference pairs of the week included Xolani Hodel and Maddi Kriz of Stanford, Pac-12; Grand Canyon’s Krista Rowan and Brooke Birch, CCSA; Tulane’s Samantha Mehlman and Emily Heintzelman, Conference USA (for the second time this season); and Dylan Mott and Logan Wallick of UT Martin (for the second time in 2023) and Neva Clark and Joy Courtright of Chattanooga, Ohio Valley (co-pairs).
C-USA lands seventh team
Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas, will add beach volleyball for the 2024 season. A member of the Division-I Western Athletic Conference in other sports, the Texans’ new beach-volleyball program will compete as an affiliate member of Conference USA, which had six teams in 2023.