College Beach Volleyball: Where AVP, FIVB, and Olympic Talent Begins
On Wednesday night, standing at the entrance to USC’s Merle Norman Stadium, I was watching an AVP match. I was watching an FIVB match. I was watching a 2020, or 2024, or 2028 – and perhaps all of them – Olympic match.
In reality, I was watching college beach volleyball, which is not mutually exclusive to any of the above.
Beach volleyball was introduced to the college ranks in 2012. In just five seasons, it shed its status as an emerging sport, hitting the milestones required by the NCAA to be an official NCAA Championship sport. No sport in the NCAA’s 119-year history has done it faster.
To see how far the game has come in such a short amount of time, to see the staggering level of talent, one only needs to come out to a single tournament this year. USC on Wednesday night wouldn’t have been a bad place to start.
On the court directly in front of me was Sarah Sponcil and Lily Justine of UCLA. Less than a year ago, Sponcil played in her first AVP, in Austin with Lauren Fendrick. She made the finals, challenging April Ross and Alix Klineman, playing with an undeniable swagger. Across the court from her on Wednesday was her partner in AVP Chicago, Terese Cannon. Together, they emerged from the qualifier – their closest set being 21-12 – and took third, knocking off veterans Amanda Dowdy and Irene Pollock and Emily Day and Betsi Flint along the way.
And on Wednesday they were competing for school pride. There’s something beautifully simple in that.
One court down was USC’s Tina Graudina. If you haven’t heard her name yet, you will, and you will hear it quite often. As a freshman in 2018 she won Freshman of the year in virtually every category one can and, alongside partner Abril Bustamante, National Pair of the Year. She followed it up by winning Rookie of the Year on the World Tour.
It’s possible she takes a red shirt during her junior year to make a push for the Olympics, representing Latvia. By that time, Bustamante, should her aspirations be to play beach professionally, could very well be making AVP Sundays.
Yes, they’re that good. And yet they’re also not invincible, even at the college level. Playing against them on Wednesday night was Nicole and Megan McNamara of UCLA, twins with exceptional ball control and craftiness and pizzazz, who, just a few months ago, were pushing Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat to three sets in a three-star in Chetumal, Mexico.
College beach volleyball is its own magnificent ecosystem. Imagine if Lebron James could have played college ball, finished out the year in the NBA, hopped on the Olympic national team, and then did that for four years.
That’s exactly what college beach volleyball is.
Before they graduated from USC, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes were making AVP finals. Beach fans were treated to the best of all worlds – the pleasure of seeing their growth and maturity at the college level, where team is valued over individual, where kids can be kids, and then watching as they topple professionals who have been on tour for years.
It is for these exact reasons that p1440 is expanding its coverage of the college game, which is, for certain schools and matches and tournaments, hardly any different than an AVP or even FIVB, as far as talent goes. It is a game where the cup of talent has runneth over, spilling into all corners of the country, from St. Mary’s and Stanford down to UCLA, USC and Pepperdine, off to Hawai’i and all the way east to Florida State, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia State.
The trickle-down effect is already being noticed, with more juniors playing the sport, and playing it at a higher level. That’s what the possibility of scholarships, of an education, of a path outside of a gym, will do.
We’re going to do our best to tell the stories of these athletes, both on and off the sand. We’ll dig into the background of St. Mary’s’ court one defender, Lindsey Knudsen, who will be graduating and heading off to Croatia on an 18-month mission for the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. We’ll explore Courtney Bowen, the basketball player from Brooklyn who serendipitously found her way onto the Stanford team and wound up winning two national championships indoors and is now a bona fide talent on the beach. We’ll dig into Hawai’i, to UCLA, to USC, to Pepperdine, finding the stories of brilliant and, even better, fantastic human beings.
The game has stories to tell, and the college level hasn’t yet had its surface scratched. We’re looking to change that, one story at a time, one tournament at a time, one insanely high-level match at a time.
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