NCAA beach countdown: “Everyone’s bought in” at No. 4 Pepperdine

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Pepperdine beach volleyball 2/16/2020-Deahna Kraft
Pepperdine's Deahna Kraft celebrates a point at the USA beach volleyball pairs championship/Matt Brown, USA volleyball

It’s 6 on a Friday morning, and the word idyllic cold be used to describe the sunrise, save for all the commotion. The sun is doing its usual, artistic thing it does in Malibu that time of day, painting its magnificent portrait of pinks and oranges and reds and yellows over the Pacific Ocean. It’s cool, not cold. The ground is laden with dew.

And there are 18 girls yelling, panting, breathing, gasping, running.

These are the sounds of a Pepperdine team coming together.

In the history of sports, every team at the beginning of every season has proclaimed that this year will be different. Better, somehow. Pepperdine is no exception here in that both Brook Bauer and Deahna Kraft, captains and likely No. 1 pairing this season, proclaimed their excitement about this year’s team. But what Pepperdine can claim over every other school, despite nobody having begun their 2020 season just yet, is that its year is actually significantly different.

By this point last season, the Waves had undergone a shooting near campus, a fire that marred their fall season, an ACL tear to one of their top players, and a new coach, Marcio Sicoli, taking over the program.

“That’s crazy right there,” said Bauer, a junior Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who went 17-12, mostly with Heidi Dyer, on court one in 2019. “I forgot that was all last year. To put that in perspective, it’s insane that we all went through that in one year. That all right there, that string of things, is crazy.”

It made for a mercurial season, the worst, by record, in Pepperdine’s outstanding history. The Waves finished 20-11 and closed the season with four straight losses, allowing the WCC title out of its grasp for the first time while failing to win a set at the NCAA Championships.

But this year is different, and it’s different because there have been no shootings. There have been no fires causing Malibu to evacuate, or landslides turning Zuma Beach into a dusty blend of sand, dirt and ash. There are no new coaches.

There are just a core of familiar faces, a tremendous crop of new ones, and a morning fitness test that brought them all together.

“It was the turning point of team chemistry,” said Kraft, a senior from Seattle whose 64 career wins put her at eleventh on the all-time list at Pepperdine. “Ever since then I feel like everyone’s bought in. It was one of the best times I’ve had as a team and I just felt like everyone came together.”

Why that run, a standard conditioning test at Pepperdine, was such a seminal moment is difficult for Bauer and Kraft to explain. There is no step-by-step recipe to team chemistry. Sometimes alchemy just happens at 6 in the morning, on a dew-laden field where the team was asked to run a mile comprised of 50-yard intervals in seven minutes or less. Kraft just knows that she was on the cusp of making it or not, and her timer, Carly Skjodt, a transfer from Michigan, dropped her clipboard and ran the last few lengths with her.

Kraft finished her mile in 6 minutes, 59 seconds.

“That’s what I’m talking about, the team chemistry we have, we’re all willing to give something up for each other,” Kraft said. “The next group ran and Melanie [Paul] ran three laps with people. We just all had each other’s back and that’s really unique. The last time I truly felt that was my freshman year when we went to the finals.”

While Pepperdine is one of two programs in the country to have made the national championship in Gulf Shores, Alabama, every year since beach volleyball became a collegiate sport, the Waves have not won since 2014 and haven’t made a final since 2017.

Kraft and Bauer could very well be right in their assessment that this team is similar in talent and chemistry to the 2017 group that just barely fell to USC in the final.

Returning are core pieces in Kraft, Bauer, Gigi Hernandez (a senior from Dana Point, California) and Alex Filippone (a junior from Del Mar, California), as well as starters Katie Gavin (a junior from Laguna Beach) and Simone Priebe (a sophomore from Leander, Texas). Freshmen Mary Sinclair (Ventura) and Sutton Mactavish (Southlake, Texas) have also impressed this pre-season. Skjodt, the product of Carmel, Indiana, who had a stellar indoor career for Michigan, as well as Hannah Frohling (a senior from Edmond, Oklahoma) and Savana Greene (a sophomore from Kaneohe, Hawai’i), both of whom competed indoors for Pepperdine, have added three more dynamic athletes to the mix.

“There was this energy at the 6 a.m. conditioning that I’ve never felt before, any other year at Pepperdine,” Bauer said. “It was just so surreal, a combination of who’s here and everyone’s in it for the right reasons and it’s all for each other and a higher purpose and it’s super cool to be a part of.

“That’s what’s most exciting about this year is that we’re all on the same page and we’re all looking in the same direction and just that feeling is making it even more exciting. It feels like every single one of our teammates is going the same way and it’s pretty cool.”

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