It was a little more than two months ago that Brooke Niles and the Florida State beach team suffered their first failure in a season without too many of them. Niles had made a commitment to herself, promising that she’d have the lineup figured out before her Seminoles went off for winter break.
It was mid-February. Days before the season-opener against LSU. She still had no idea.
“There’s so many combinations,” she said back then.
They’ve figured it out. The tinkering is, with just a few days before the NCAA Tournament, where Florida State is the three seed, alas finished. Lineup’s set. Three wins, potentially, to earn their first NCAA Championship.
“Playing all the West Coast teams in the beginning, we thought we had the right pieces, we just didn’t have the right partnerships,” Niles said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “So we changed a lot, and the second time we played UCLA we had the right partnerships but they were still kinda new.”
Nothing is new now. The five starters who replaced half of the team that graduated from the 33-7 team that fell in the NCAA finals from a year ago are now experienced. The fresh partnerships have settled in, and it has shown to the tune of 17 wins in their past 18 matches, including a sweep of LSU in the CCSA finals, the fourth straight conference title for the Noles.
“Our goal is to get better every time we’re out on the sand whether it’s practice or a tournament, and I think we’ve been able to do that consistently over the last ten weeks or so,” Niles said. “It’s hard because a team could start off as your ones pair and other teams can progress at different rates. You’re supposed to set your lineup how it plays our in practice so those things, so we’ve had some teams progress at different rates than other teams and we’ve had new partnerships which has been exciting as a coach. You can drive yourself crazy with how many matchups you can have on your own team.”
Niles has found the sweet spot with Alaina Chacon and Madison Fitzpatrick at No. 1, Sara Putt and Payton Rundat 2, Brooke Kuhlman and Avery Poppinga at 3, Molly McBain and Payton Caffrey at 4, and Macy Jerger and Kate Privett at 5.
Each has found their stride, particularly courts 2, 4, and 5, all of which are the second-ranked pairings in the country on their respective courts. Rund and Putt have gone 13-2 since the switch; Caffrey and McBain are second-ranked on four trail only LMU’s undefeated Veronica Nederend and Emma Doud; Jerger and Privett are 14-1.
Niles may have genuinely had no idea, as she said back in February, what her lineup would look like come May. With a 28-5 record, another CCSA championship, a three-seed heading into the final weekend of the year, it seems the Noles have figured it out just fine.
“I’ve learned a lot in the past four years just being in that title game or close to it,” Niles said. “I want to treat every match the same way we’d treat a National Championship match. It’s just another beach, playing a different team across the net, and we just really want to focus on ourselves. We are getting better and better each time we’re on the sand.”
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