With the announcement Friday morning by the ASUN and then Friday afternoon by the Missouri Valley conferences, 25 of the 32 NCAA Division conferences have now postponed their fall sports to spring (an updated list follows).
One of those conferences, the Big West, made its move early, canceling fall sports on July 29. Which meant a delay into Division I competition for UC San Diego, which joined the Big West last month, culminating a four-year move from Division II.
“It’s been strange,” 10th-year UCSD coach Ricci Luyties said. “One thing is just not seeing all the players for such a long time. That has been very weird. And then we were supposed to start practicing this week, which really kind of put that in place a little bit more.”
UCSD finished 18-9 last season (leaving Luyties with an overall record of 179-100), 12-5 in the California Collegiate Athletic Association. Then Tritons lost their first-round CCAA tournament match and then lost in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II West Regional to Alaska-Anchorage 22-25, 25-23, 25-18, 21-25, 16-14.
And then it was on to Division I and the Big West, until the pandemic changed everything.
“Our team, they’re all disappointed,” Luyties said. “It’s exciting for everybody to do this. But again, they’re scared. Not all of them but a lot of them. When we were talking about coming back and getting tested and doing all these things, there was a lot of doubt in the players.”
Luyties is one of the USA’s most decorated players, a member of the USA team that won gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He was a four-time NCAA-champion UCLA setter and the Volleyball Magazine men’s college player of the year in 1984.
On the beach, the 6-foot-5 right-side Luyties played on the AVP tour, earning seven titles in his career from 1983-2001. That included winning the Manhattan Beach Open in 1988 with Karch Kiraly.
Luyties was an assistant at Colorado before becoming head coach for six seasons at Southern Mississippi. He came to UCSD in 2010.
The UCSD roster this season includes four seniors, six juniors, four sophomores, a redshirt freshman and four new freshmen. Almost the entire team is from California, with one player from Bosnia, another from Romania and one from Las Vegas. The top three leaders in kills return in sophomore Sarah Reible, a right side from Pleasanton; Trinity Castaneda, a junior outside from Indio; and senior Gina Cortesi, an outside from Torrance.
Setter Isabela Dobra, the Romanian and CCAA setter of the year, returns for her senior season.
“We’ve been on the Zoom calls, but we’ll get on a call with the team and nobody will speak up and say anything,” Luyties said. “And it’s like you’re talking to a wall a lot of the time as you’re going through these whole meetings.
“I’ve basically been calling everybody individually and just trying to reconnect with them and to just chit-chat with them. And I think that’s been the strangest part about this whole thing, just kind of losing that connection with the players.”
“For us moving into the Big West, obviously there was a big build up and excitement about everything happening and getting to play some of these high-level teams and being in a whole new conference,” Luyties said. “So I know for me, it’s disappointing, but every time I started thinking, ‘Oh, this sucks, this is bad,’ I come back to ‘What about the players?’ They’re losing a year, and they only have a few years to do this. You lose the whole season.”
Speaking of which, his daughter Chloe is a senior beach player at Cal whose 2020 spring season was cut short.
“And she was one of those kids who finally got to play,” Luyties said. “It was three years of being almost there, and then she’s in the line-up and boom, it’s gone.
“I keep going to all these situations. And like, man, these kids are just getting such a bad experience. The whole thing is so harsh. And so anytime I’m thinking about myself at all, I try to get off it quickly.”
The UC San Diego campus is in hybrid status for the fall, with most courses offered online only, but some courses available in person. That can be a challenge for Luytie’s players.
“Some of my players actually are supposed to move into the dorms. At the end of the month they have like a staggered move-in. I think they have to move in during a five or 10-day move-in period. They don’t have the dates yet, it hasn’t been put out there,” Luyties said.
“It kind of depends on the player if they’re taking online classes or have some in-person. I think just about every player has at least one in-person class.”
Luyties is also introducing a new assistant coach to his program. Thiago (pronounced Chee-ah-goh) Barbosa is a former Brazilian pro player that previously coached at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“He is a high energy guy, which I love in the gym. He’s always got a good attitude and he’s pretty much done and coached every position, so he’s going to really be able help all players and give good feedback.
“He has a good personality that I think is really going to be something that the players gravitate towards.”
Not that they’ve done much coaching.
“What we immediately started looking at was how are we going to get our players back on campus when school starts, which for us is the first or second day of October,” Luyties said. “So the discussion is how are we getting these players back and what is the practice situation going to be?”
UCSD had some interesting non-conference matches on what would have been its 2020 schedule, including playing San Diego State, Oregon State, Arizona and West Virginia. But at this point in the pandemic, even six-on-six practices are out, Luyties said.
“It’s going to be a social-distanced practicing. They’re talking about having them in pods of possibly their roommates or people that they’re around to practice with.
“So we’re basically figuring out those maybe who can practice together, and how we’re going to work out the strength and conditioning part of it. And that will probably be a huge part of this coming back. There’s also the worry about people getting injured from not playing for so long.”
That’s the physical part.
“And then the other part of that is, how are you going to make it interesting for a whole quarter? I’m trying to do these, individual type practices and getting the most out of it,” Luyties said.
In the meantime, Luyties’ pro beach career begs the question: Why not start a beach program at UCSD, an area that is a hotbed for beach volleyball, but does not yet have an NCAA program?
Luyties admitted that he’s lobbied the administration for some time.
“I’ve been trying to get them to add beach for six or seven years or so. When beach was kind of getting started, I said, you should try to jump in now and get in early,” Luyties said. “And so first it was kind of a pushback because of the move to Division I and having to get the referendum passed and all that. And now, I keep bringing it up all the time with my administrator, ‘What about beach?’
“And they’re somewhat open to it or they are open to it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen unless some push comes from another direction. They’ve told me that if I fundraise for it, get the money for it, they’ll do it. But I don’t want to do that.”