Like any other student at Louisiana State University, the best athlete on campus will usually walk to her classes with a friend. As it goes with dominant athletes in the SEC, a region of the country where sport is next to God and country — and not always in that order — she’s stopped frequently on these walks.

“You must play a sport!” they’ll say.

And then Kristen Nuss will turn to Taryn Kloth and laugh.

“Yep!” Nuss will reply. “She sure does!”

You cannot fault the passerby for noticing Kloth before Nuss, or just not noticing Nuss at all. Kloth, indeed, does play a sport, and she plays it well. She’s 6-foot-4 and is as easy to miss as it is difficult to beat the beach volleyball team on which she plays.

But what the passerby don’t realize in that moment, is that the quiet, 5-foot-6 senior who laughed and pointed to Kloth as the surefire athlete, is perhaps the most dominant player, in any sport, in this generation of LSU Tigers.

It isn’t just the students at LSU who almost always miss Nuss, even with her 111 wins as a Tiger.

Her coach almost made the same mistake five years ago.

Russell Brock received texts like the one he got from Pete Nuss in 2016 all the time.

“Hey,” Pete, Kristen’s older brother and Brock’s occasional beach volleyball partner would write, “you should take a look at my little sister.”

In 2014, Brock was hired as Fran Flory’s associate head coach of the fledgling LSU beach volleyball team. Together, they were bestowed the unenviable task of building a landlocked program that could compete with the West Coast powers of USC, Pepperdine, Long Beach State, and UCLA. Brock would get texts like Pete’s all the time, from dads and brothers and sisters and mothers, urging him to look at their child or sibling or cousin or whomever. They’d be the next great Tiger, they just knew it.

Brock all but rolled his eyes when Pete said the same about his sister, Kristen, a 5-foot-6 three-sport athlete at nearby Mount Carmel High.

She’d won three state titles on the indoor team, earning a nomination for Gatorade Player of the Year.

But had she ever played beach?

Once. Kind of.

Nuss and her good friend, Megan Davenport, signed up for a beach tournament one summer. They figured they’d win. After all, all the women on the entry list were older, and here were Nuss and Davenport, teenagers, building Mount Carmel into one of the state’s biggest volleyball powers.

“We got absolutely destroyed,” Nuss said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I think we scored four points. I had no idea what I was doing.”

It may have been the last time Kristen Nuss was destroyed on a beach volleyball court. Brock noticed Nuss at a showcase event at Coconut Beach, host of a pair of AVP events in 2015 and 2016. He texted Pete: “I saw your sister. We want her.”

“The timing of everything was just perfect,” Nuss said. “Everything fell into place.”

Nuss entered a program that was, without a doubt, on the rise. It had improved from 6-10 to 14-9 to, in 2016, Nuss’ senior year of high school, 20-9.

Enter Nuss, and a freshman from Scottsdale, Arizona, named Claire Coppola.

Quiet thunder had just struck.

With Nuss and Coppola on court one, LSU finished 27-8 and qualified for its first National Championship. The Tigers won another 27 matches in 2018, and Nuss and Coppola became the first pair to be named All-America. In 2019, their 33 wins as a pair set the LSU record for victories in a season; their 31 wins as a team also set a program record, and they nearly stunned USC in the semifinals of the NCAA Championships.

In 2020, one week prior to COVID halting the season, LSU was ranked No. 1 in the country, a seminal moment for a program far more known for its football team and a basketball program that is the alma mater of Shaq.

Nuss thinks about this rise often. Not in a hubristic or nostalgic way, but more a comical one. She recalls the early days, when the Tigers would have to drive across Baton Rouge to a local bar called Mango’s to practice. Their drive back would begin at 5, in the middle of rush hour, and it would take almost an hour.

Now, LSU is home to the finest stadium in college beach volleyball, a tennis center that was converted into beach volleyball courts. They sold out the place last spring, when LSU beat the back-to-back National Champion UCLA Bruins for the second time in a few weeks.

“Every single time we practice, we’re like ‘Wow what would we do before this.’ Just little things like that, it’s so crazy to think back on. It’s been a fun ride,” Nuss said. “I am so grateful to be able to play in this stadium, under the lights. It’s so surreal. I thank LSU so much, just the fact they gave us that, a beach program on the rise, here’s the best stadium in the country.”

Nuss may be, on the surface, the most unlikely candidate to become the winningest active player in the country. At 5-foot-6, she enjoys surprising people, and while, yes, she wouldn’t mind an extra inch or two, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like to prove people wrong. It’s for sure something I’m like, ‘I gotta do it for my 5-6ers out there! To show people we can be athletic and do something!’” Nuss said. “I love it. I wouldn’t change it. I like my 5-6.”

She’s a perfect personification of all things LSU beach volleyball: Tough, gritty, resilient, as unlikely to rise to prominence as any. Yet here Nuss and the Tigers are, perennially one of the top teams in the East, battling with the best programs in the country. Much of that comes thanks to Nuss.

Even when her 2020 season was canceled, she scrambled together one of her own, traveling across the country with Kloth, playing in any tournament they could find. They beat Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske in the finals of a tournament in Nashville, didn’t drop a single set against a professionally-filled field in Atlantic City, cleaned up all the local tournaments at Coconut Beach.

“We definitely wanted to make the most of the situation,” Nuss said. “We both went into quarantine and said ‘Well we’re both over just kind of sitting here doing nothing.’ They had tournaments and we were like ‘Let’s do it!’ And we just rolled with it. It was super fun that we got to do that with everything going on.”

It’s paying off, now, several times per week: They’re 8-0 on the year as a pair and have yet to drop a set. While Kloth is a can’t-miss talent, the tallest blocker in the NCAA with the ball control of a player much smaller, it’s best not to forget about the girl you might not be able to see behind her.

It’s best not to make the mistake of missing out on Kristen Nuss.

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