The NCAA’s National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship begins Friday in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and this year’s tournament should be different than any of the previous four.
“You’ve got fifth-years, and sixth-years, and transfers. Everybody’s got a super-team,” LSU coach Russell Brock said. “All these incredible freshmen have come in and made these teams better.
“That’s what will make the tournament so special.”
Since the NCAA took over the tournament from the AVCA, USC won the first two and UCLA the last two. The 2020 tournament was canceled by the pandemic, but every player was granted an extra year of eligibility and many took advantage, including all of LSU’s seniors. Their team was ranked No. 1 when the season ended in 2020, but this year that honor goes to UCLA.
Accordingly, the Bruins open play at 9 a.m. Central on the Redneck Riviera against eighth-seeded TCU. Fourth-seeded LSU plays No. 5 Loyola Marymount at 10, followed by second-seeded USC vs. No. 7 Cal Poly at 11, and then third-seeded Florida State against No. 6 Stanford at noon.
“I didn’t know that we’d make it this far, to be honest,” Florida State coach Brooke Niles said, acknowledging playing in the time of the pandemic. “The biggest thing is the sacrifices that our players have made to get here, sacrificing their social life, working outside in the fall, not having weights.
“It’s been a grind, to say the least, but I’m proud of them, how they’ve battled through it, we hold our breath every day after our COVID testing to make sure they’re doing the right things.”
Not only will the tournament be challenging on the sand, but the teams are short-staffed.
Each team is allowed only 22 of what the NCAA calls “tier one personnel,” that are allowed on the same side as the players. With many team rosters in excess of 20 players, plus coaches, strength coaches, nutritionists, administrators, videographers, and photographers, it made for some very tough decisions.
For example, Florida State had to purchase tier two tickets for $300/day for a pod of four players so those non-starters, who aren’t allowed to interact with the starters, could get in.
“I appreciate the NCAA putting on this tournament, and there’s a lot of things we don’t understand about it, but a good portion of our team won’t be able to be with our team during our championship,” Florida State coach Brooke Niles said. “They’ll be on the spectator side.”
Florida State simply couldn’t accommodate everyone in its program, “and our administrators have made sacrifices in not wanting to be in that tier one group. Our players are going to be doing video and scouting for us when normally we have video people from FSU that travel and take care of all that for the coaches,” Niles said.
“They’ve been wanting to work so they can be with the team and the rest of the players. It’s unfortunate that they have to be on the side with the spectators, family, and friends. We’re very fortunate that we’re able to go and that everybody can be there, but we have to have two different groups, and that’s the thing that’s a bummer.”
Per the NCAA, tier two non-starters aren’t even allowed to roam between courts, limited to the pod and court that they’re assigned.
What’s more, there were no public ticket sales. Players from each team get to purchase up to four tickets each. And the NCAA is allowing no media, just ESPN, which is televising the event. Friday’s early rounds are on ESPNU and Saturday’s and Sunday’s matches are on ESPN2.
The reality of the competition is there are only four teams with a real chance to take home the national championship: UCLA, USC, Florida State and LSU. The four combined are an impressive 95-1 against teams outside of the top four. The only loss was when FIU upset Florida State on April 9.
That said, we expect an upset or two, with balanced squads at Loyola Marymount, Stanford, Cal Poly, especially given potential equalizing winds anticipated for this weekend.
No. 1 UCLA (28-3) — Coach Stein Metzger’s team began the week with weather training, specifically wind.
“We reviewed weather,” Metzger said, “wind volleyball. We noticed the weather calls for 8-12 mph winds this weekend, so we reviewed all our policies, walked them through and had them sideout with the different styles that we use in the wind to prepare us for that, because we haven’t played in that kind of wind since Cal Poly. We’re trying to prepare for the elements.
UCLA’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Savvy Simo and Lexy Denaburg
No. 2 — Lea Monkhouse and Devon Newberry
No. 3 — Abby Van Winkle and Lindsey Sparks
No. 4 — Megan Muret and Jacqueline Quade
No. 5 — Rileigh Powers and Jaden Whitmarsh
UCLA isn’t looking to change any of its systems, just to fine-tune and prepare for their upcoming opponents, Metzger said.
“Nothing dramatically different than what we’ve been working on in the last month, which is expanding our attacking styles, we’re kind of settled in on our style, and just tuning up the possibility of having some weather.
“We recapped our experience with USC, we’re gathering video and starting to watch and prepare for TCU, from there we’ll do some preparation on all the teams that are there.”
The Bruins’ new pairs, Monkhouse and Newberry, and Van Winkle and Sparks, are paying dividends for the Bruins.
“The new pairs that we’ve put together are working,” Metzger said. “It’s a fresh start, now they’re getting used to each other, and they played really well.”
UCLA beat USC twice in last weekend’s Pac-12 Championship.
“We have a sense of confidence that we can beat any team on a given day,” Metzger said. “A sense of appreciation for each other, and everyone wants to play for each other, which is always a positive sign.
“This is usually something that happens sooner, but considering COVID, and not being able to meet anywhere together outside of practice, we’re used to having a lot of get-togethers away from volleyball, and of course we haven’t been able to do that. It’s a good feeling.”
This season, UCLA went 2-3 vs. USC, 2-0 vs. Florida State, and 2-0 vs. LSU.
No. 2 USC (26-4) — USC, which left Los Angeles on Monday to acclimate, played every team in the field except for TCU.
“It’s a two-hour time difference, the sand is a little different, more hard-packed, there can be wind at times, you want to immerse yourself in that environment so you’re as comfortable as possible,” USC coach Dain Blanton said.
USC’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Tina Graudina and Megan Kraft
No. 2 — Julia Scoles and Sammy Slater
No. 3 — Haley Hallgren and Hailey Harward
No. 4 — Joy Dennis and Delaynie Maple
No. 5 — Audrey and Nicole Nourse
USC lost twice to UCLA in the Pac-12 championships, after defeating UCLA three times previously.
“Every time we play them, we know it’s going to be a battle. The morning match, I don’t know that we played our best match, but they played really well, played really strong on their home court,” Blanton said.
“In the final, we were in a really good position to be successful, and just didn’t close the door on them. If you have a great team in that position, you’ve got to close, and that’s something you learn over time.
The Trojans have gained motivation from the losses.
“If you’re in the championship, and you lose it, if that doesn’t fire you up, then you’re in the wrong sport.”
“The most important thing is that you play well at the end of that match, and we did that at some positions, and we did not do that at a couple of others.
“If you’re playing at a high level, you want to win every time you step out on that court. Losing is always a big motivator.”
This season, USC went 3-2 vs. UCLA, 1-1 vs. Florida State, and 1-1 vs. LSU.
No. 3 Florida State (32-4) — The Seminoles had arguably the most challenging regular season schedule, having played more matches than any other squad, plus significant travel challenges.
“Every game was tough, I almost wish there wasn’t a weekend where we didn’t schedule so tough, because it was a big grind this year,” Niles said.
“We’ve been able to show some grit. We’ve played these tough opponents and competed even when we weren’t feeling that great, we’ve traveled cross-country, sometimes things just aren’t working between you and your partner, you just have to reset, and we’re just grinding out points and grinding out plays, which is what we’re going to have to do in the end.”
Florida State’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Keara Rutz and Torrey Van Winden
No. 2 — Maddie Anderson and Alaina Chacon
No. 3 — Molly McBain and Payton Caffrey
No. 4 — Sara Putt and Raelyn White
No. 5 — Jenna Johnson and Kate Privett
“I’m constantly surprised at how our team is able to rally around each other and support each other,” Niles said. “Mental health is a huge thing that’s coming up now, because normally we have team meetings in person, and now we have meetings over Zoom, and there’s just not a lot of one-on-one contact with people unless you’re at practice, and then you just go your own separate ways.”
She added, “The way our players have been able to step up for each other, and be there for each other, despite their circumstances, has been really special.
“As a staff, my staff has really gotten closer, and we work really well together, and we’ve had some intense moments, we’ve had to pivot a lot where we never really had to before.”
Florida State got a big boost when Van Winden, a star indoors before her career was curtailed by concussions, and a standout on the beach transferred from Cal Poly.
“She’s meant a lot to this program. The mindset she brings to practice, the intensity, she wants to play on the world tour when she’s done here, play on the AVP tour, she’s working towards those goals every day,” Niles said.”She makes her partner better, she makes her teammates better to see that intensity.
“She’s really unapologetically competitive. It’s nice to be around, because she wants to win so badly, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. A girl after my own heart.”
The Seminoles won the CCSA tournament, also a modified double-elimination competition in that there’s no double final. That creates a potential scenario when two teams have just one loss to each other but one squad wins a championship and the other doesn’t. That was the format last weekend when FSU beat LSU.
“When we lost in the finals to UCLA (in 2018), we both left the tournament with one loss. We just happened to lose at the wrong time,” Niles said. “We have to be able to battle through the loser’s bracket, and it’s big that our conference changed the format to conform to the NCAA format.”
This season, FSU went 0-2 vs. UCLA, 1-1 vs. USC, and 4-0 vs. LSU.
No. 4 LSU (25-7) — LSU has had a sense of unfinished business, and is the most experienced, senior-laden team in the field.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on the mental side of things,” Brock said. “We’ve focused a lot on our side of the net, we brought in a mental coach, Dr. Larry Widman, we encouraged them to set up sessions to talk about their cohesion and also prepare for the mental challenge that the tournament will be.”
LSU’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth
No. 2 — Claire Coppola and Kelli Greene-Agnew
No. 3 — Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope and Grace Seits
No. 4 — Jess Lansman and Sydney Moore
No. 5 — Olivia Ordonez and Kahlee York
With school out for the Tigers, it was a little easier to make time to work with Dr. Widman.
“We’ve never had that opportunity before, but this year we’ve invested the time,” Brock said. “It’s really about how are we going to get better. We’re not going to change a ton mechanically, but you can give yourself a percentage chance to be successful.”
That percentage chance could be enough. At the CCSA tournament, the Tigers fell by the narrowest of margins, with three matches going three sets.
“It was tough,” Brock said. “I saw us play as good as we’ve played all year at times. I don’t think we clicked across all five courts the way that I know that we can, but we had courts step up and do what we needed to do.
“At the end, it came down to one play on court three, that maybe went our way, and maybe it didn’t, but it got called the other way, and that cost us that title. To be that close, against that team, was really heart-wrenching. It was a gut punch for our team’s perspective, whose goal was to win conference.”
LSU’s Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, are the only undefeated pair in NCAA beach volleyball at 32-0. Asked what made the No. 1 pair special, Brock just laughed.
“You could pick anything, from incredibly competitive, incredibly passionate, there wasn’t anyone that took last year harder than Kristen,” Brock said. “She’s put the last four and a half or five years into helping this program, something that she grew up loving, and she achieved those goals and got to the top of the ladder. The passion is there day in and day out, they’re the ones pushing the envelope, and they invest not only in their own game, but they sit and watch video with others. They talk with other pairs about what they see when they scout. They set a high standard by not only what they say, but what they do.
“They’re investing nutritionally, in recovery, in conditioning, in strength. Technically they make lists after every match that they play, of things they want to improve on.
“You would think that at some point along the way, a team that’s had that much success would understand that they’ve achieved, that they’ve arrived, and that is absolutely not their perspective.”
Brock said they’re best of friends.
“Probably the funnest thing to watch from last year, when they didn’t play together, is their friendship,” Brock said. “They’re as thick as thieves. They enjoy each other, they laugh, they’ve become incredible friends.
“You don’t have to be great friends, but man, what an advantage when you love to spend time together and you get to play together.”
It has taken a while for LSU to find its form again, to recapture the magic and energy that it had in March of 2020. Brock believes that part of that was re-integrating Lansman and Ordonez into the roster, who had originally decided to leave college beach volleyball, then opted to return this spring after missing fall training.
“They were really valuable for us last year as we hit our stride, so to not have them all fall, and then to re-integrate them, they had been done with their careers, and then they jump back into that environment, it takes a couple of months to get back to where you started, much less get to where you finish.”
This season, LSU went 0-2 vs. UCLA, 1-1 vs. USC, and 0-4 vs. FSU.
Brock believes that now that the pair is back up to speed, the Tigers are ready.
“Now that we’re at the end of the road again, that’s been something that’s been building for them, and it builds confidence in the team that they’re playing near or above the level that they were last year, to capture the momentum and intensity as we head into the tournament.”
No. 5 LOYOLA MARYMOUNT (29-6) — Loyola won its second consecutive West Coast Conference championship when it beat Pacific and Pepperdine twice.
The Lions and coach John Mayer are currently riding a nine-match winning streak, and will compete in the championship for the first time.
LMU’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Reka Orsi Toth and Selina Marolf
No. 2 — Megan Rice and Iya Lindahl
No. 3 — Jessie Prichard and Savannah Slattery
No. 4 — Darby Dunn and Jacinda Ramirez
No. 5 — Emma Doud and Maddie Firnett
No. 6 STANFORD (23-11) — The Cardinal finished third in Saturday’s Pac-12 championships, the program’s best finish. This year Stanford set a program record for most wins in program history (23).
The championship field appearance is the first for Stanford and coach Andrew Fuller.
Stanford’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Xolani Hodel and Sunny Villapando
No. 2 — Charlie Ekstrom and Maya Harvey
No. 3 — Maddi Kriz and Kate Reilly
No. 4 — Emmy Sharp and Amelia Smith
No. 5 — Maddie Dailey and Jordan McKinney
No. 7 CAL POLY (23-9) — Cal Poly won its second consecutive Big West championship out of the loser’s bracket Saturday. The Mustangs started with a win over Bakersfield (5-0) but were sent into the loser’s bracket by Hawai’i (3-2), from where they ran through Long Beach State (4-1) and finally Hawai’i twice (3-2, 3-2).
The NCAA tournament appearance is Poly’s second under coach Todd Rogers, following on the heels of their 2019 appearance.
Cal Poly’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Emily Sonny and Macy Gordon
No. 2 — Jayelin Lombard and Amy Ozee
No. 3 — Tia Miric and Mariah Whalen
No. 4 — Sam Strah and Eleonore Johansen
No. 5 — Vanessa Roscoe and Josie Ulrich
No. 8 TCU (26-8) — TCU fell to LSU in the CCSA Aqua bracket semifinals, finishing third in the conference.
The Horned Frogs have set several records this year under coach Hector Gutierrez, including most CCSA tournament wins (3), greatest winning percentage in program history (73.9%), and single-season match victories (112).
TCU’s projected starting lineup
No. 1 — Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno Mateeva
No. 2 — Olivia Blackburn and Hailey Brockett
No. 3 — Maria Gonzalez and Rochelle Scott
No. 4 — Trinity Cavanaugh and Megan Jacobsen
No. 5 — Josie Miller and Caroline White
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Help keep free journalism free by becoming a VolleyballMag.com Sustaining Member: https://volleyballmag.com/sustaining-membership/