Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic presents National Championship Competition in February
Pre-season rankings can be a bit of a silly exercise, particularly in the sport of beach volleyball. It has a preseason that is nearly as long as its season and an off-season that stretches more than nine months.
Between the last serve of 2018 and the first of 2019 were only, oh, 292 days.
It’s a complicated way of saying that a lot can happen. Players graduate. New players enroll. Transfers are bid goodbye from some programs and welcomed to others. And, of course, in the midst of all that, your program can slide down two spots, as Hawai’i, which finished the 2018 season 37-5 and ranked No. 3 in the country, did. It did not go unnoticed.
Appearing on the local KHON2 News in Hawai’i three days before the Bows opened their season with the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic, Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall admitted that his team is a “little unhappy with where we’re ranked but again it’s a preseason ranking. It doesn’t matter. It’s where you finish but we’re using it as motivation.”
Those rankings on Saturday will be completely and totally obsolete, put to the test in every way possible at Queen’s Beach. Of the five teams competing – Hawai’i, Stanford, Pepperdine, UCLA, St. Mary’s – four finished the 2018 season in the top 15, three made the NCAA Tournament and one, UCLA, claimed the national title.
“It’s a good measuring stick,” Pepperdine assistant coach Jon Daze said. “I mean, we’ve got Hawai’i, UCLA, St. Mary’s and Stanford. There’s two teams that we’re competing for the national championship on the first weekend. We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves right away.”
The Waves will find out a lot precisely at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, when they will meet Hawai’i, which upset them in the second round at the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
“If people really want to see a competitive match,” Hawai’i senior Ari Homayun told KHON2 News, “come see us play Pepperdine.”
And every match in between, really. Parity was the most oft-recited theme among the coaches leading up to the season-opening week, where more teams are becoming capable of upsets, including sleeper programs such as Stanford, which has improved from 5-12 to 13-10 to 17-13 in the past three seasons.
“I’ve been through this a lot and there is so much that is unseen until you’re in competition,” said Stanford coach Andrew Fuller, whose starting lineup could consist of 90 percent underclassmen. “You really can’t replace competition. In terms of what we’re looking to get out of this weekend, we practice so many different set calls and defense in practice so that when other teams are running things, we’re well accustomed to it. So, looking to see how our team responds to different styles of play – Hawai’i, Pepp, UCLA, St. Mary’s are all going to play different.”
On a macro scale, this could present a preview of what could potentially come in May. On a micro level, it’ll be an intriguing look at how teams will respond to entering a season with perhaps a different set of expectations, like UCLA, which is on the heels of its first National Championship and began 2019 ranked No. 1.
“People are going to want to beat us even more,” UCLA coach Stein Metzger said. “We’ve always assumed the underdog role since we started the program. So we may have to continue to talk about it and adjust that mindset. We talked all Fall about worrying about ourselves and playing to our standards, playing our brand of volleyball which is a lot of ball control, an aggressive style of serving, running plays, scrappy defense.”
The word most commonly used across the board was opportunity. An opportunity, for some, to prove pre-season rankings wrong. An opportunity, for others, to fiddle with different lineups and potentially even different partnerships. An opportunity, for still others, just to finally, finally, get back on the sand, a luxury for St. Mary’s, which is comprised almost entirely of indoor coaches and indoor players transitioning to the beach.
“We’re looking at this tournament as a ‘Hey, it’s time to go!’” Gaels coach Rob Browning said. “‘Season’s starting and we’re playing the best teams in the country and we’re totally fine with it.’”
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