This is the third of 12 stories previewing the top teams competing in NCAA beach volleyball this season: 

It was May of 2016, coach Kristina Hernandez and the Stetson Hatters had just been knocked out of their first college beach volleyball national championship in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and, if they were being honest, they really weren’t all that upset by the matter.

They had played UCLA close, losing 3-2, with it all coming down to the final court .

“It always comes down to the last court,” Hernandez said.

Nobody was happy they lost, but the Hatters made history in simply being there. It was the inaugural NCAA Championship, and here was Stetson, a school of less than 5,000, in a land-locked, East Coast town named Deland, finishing among the top eight beach volleyball schools in the country.

By simply making it to Gulf Shores, Stetson had surpassed whatever expectations they could have set.

“The team was happy and excited that they had just played that well, because they didn’t think that they could,” Hernandez said.

But then they knew. They knew what they were capable of: contending with the best of the West Coast, contending for a national title, making a deeper playoff run. Three years later, they delivered just that.

Last May, Stetson became the first eight seed — the lowest in the NCAA Championship’s field of eight — to beat a No. 1. And the Hatters didn’t just topple any one. They beat USC, the most powerful program in the nascent sport’s history. Again, the Hatters made history, winning their 30th match, moving onto the second round of the winners bracket.

And yet 2019 was different. After they lost their next two — 3-2 to LSU and 3-0 to Hawai’i — the Hatters weren’t elated, as they had been in 2016. They weren’t satisfied with the progress they had made.

“They were so disappointed and upset, and that was huge, because they knew that they could have done a little bit more and they could have been there and could have been further,” Hernandez said. “So it was two different vibes of ‘Oh my gosh it’s so awesome that we’re competing at this level’ versus ‘We can, and we should have.’

“When we got back to campus, people were congratulating them, and they were just a little bit bitter, because they really felt like they fell short.”

Accordingly, it explains why Hernandez has labeled this fall the best she has been a part of thus far at Stetson. The Hatters have a different type of confidence, one discovered, partly, from that victory over USC.

“The returners, I’ve never seen them as focused and confident as I’ve seen them this year,” Hernandez said. “Obviously, the success at the end of the season was a big part of that. It was one of the better falls we’ve had in a really, really long time just in terms of the smoothness of us playing, if that make sense. It came a little bit easier. We moved into our own skin a little bit.

“I think in the past it’s just reminding them how good we are sometimes because we’re a smaller school, smaller name, we get a little panicky sometimes. They’re just more mature and I’m excited for them and they’re really excited.”

Any excitement around the Stetson program this season is well-founded. The Hatters return more pieces than most teams in the country, including the No. 1 pair of Sunniva Helland-Hansen and Carly Perales, who are now in their fourth season as partners. Helland-Hansen is a 5-foot-8 senior from Norway, while Perales is a 5-9 senior from Round Rock, Texas.

Their No. 5 pair of Quinci Birker (a junior from Kelowna, British Columbia) and Rebecca Ingram (a 6-foot junior from Victoria, Australia) went 27-11 in 2019. Also returning are Ana Carolina de Almeida Costa (a junior from Sergipe, Brazil), who played at No. 3, and Yasmin Kuck (a sophomore from Montpellier, France), who played at No. 4.

Hernandez has also tapped even deeper into the global recruiting pipeline, bringing in another Norwegian in 6-foot- freshman Oda Stray Homme; Kyce Martins, a sophomore from Rio de Janeiro; and Liisel Nelis, a graduate transfer from Estonia who played indoors at Sacred Heart.

“They know they’re supposed to be competing at this level,” Hernandez said. “It’s not a shock when they win these matches. It’s good to see and we’ll see where that can take us. Different mindset already from where we were at the beginning of last year.”

Next up: No. 9 FIU

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