East Meets West a Measuring Stick For Beach Volleyball NCAA Tournament
On Saturday afternoon in Manhattan Beach, there was a moment so small, so innocuous, that only two people on the beach probably knew it happened: A father of one of the players on Florida State’s beach volleyball team approached Claire Coppola, LSU’s court one blocker, and told her he was rooting for her and the Tigers.
In any typical sporting context, this would borderline on heresy. This is a world in which one plus one equals two, the sky remains blue, and Florida State simply doesn’t root for Louisiana State.
But, for some — certainly not all — this weekend proves to be the one exception. This weekend was East Meets West, UCLA’s annual beach volleyball tournament pitting four of the top schools from the East Region – TCU, Florida State, Florida International, LSU – vs. four of the top from the West – UCLA, Pepperdine, Hawai’i, USC. And the East, to some, has something to prove.
“We really have nothing to lose here,” Coppola said.
The West Coast is considered, and justifiably so, the beach volleyball capital of not just the country, but the world. This is where prospective Olympians come to train before hitting the World Tour, where aspiring professionals move to cut their teeth and see if they have what it takes to qualify on the AVP. It’s also the region of the country from which the vast majority of the top beach volleyball recruits hail, making it an annual uphill climb for the East Region schools to keep up.
“We definitely look forward to coming out here this weekend,” Kristen Nuss, Coppola’s partner, said. “Especially because we’re the underdogs. We have a point to prove every time we come out here that we can come out here and hang with the West Coast teams.”
While the depth of West Coast schools able to compete at a high level is expanding well beyond the reaches of the East, the gap between the top programs from each is closing. LSU split on the weekend, falling 4-1 to UCLA on day one but atoned with a 3-2 win over Pepperdine. A 4-1 loss to USC was amended for with a 3-2 win over Hawai’i.
“Obviously, the West is – the sheer numbers, the training opportunities, the coaching availability, there’s such an advantage,” LSU assistant coach Drew Hamilton said. “Just to be able to compete with that without having maybe as much access to weather and ability to train – it’s nice to show, nationally, the fact that we’re able to develop programs and players.”
Florida State, too, knocked off the same teams as the Tigers, beating Pepperdine 4-1 and Hawai’i 3-2 before dropping 4-1 to UCLA and 3-2, for the second time in four days, to USC.
“We’re three and three on this trip and I think that’s good,” Florida State coach Brooke Niles said. “We had chances to 0-6, so I think there’s a lot of situations where we played our best volleyball and a lot where we didn’t play our best volleyball so I think we have a lot to work on but all of our tools are there.”
Indeed, the line between a successful weekend and a fruitless one is a thin one. Florida International played some of its best volleyball, yet still went winless on the weekend, losing three matches by the narrowest of margins, including a 2-3 loss to Hawai’i that came down to a 21-19 third set on court three.
“We’re at the top of the hill,” coach Rita Buck-Crockett said. “We just have to figure out how to get over the top of the hill.”
The good news for the East is this: Gulf Shores, site of the NCAA Tournament, remains two months away. This is, for some, the final look the West Coast schools will get at the East powers before then. Two months is a long time to make that push over the hill, so to speak, to even the scales, which still tipped heavily in favor of the West this weekend, as USC, UCLA, Pepperdine and Hawai’i went a combined 12-4.
Time enough, too, for the rivalries to return to their normal state.
“I root for the East Coast out here,” Hamilton said. “Then we get back home and you’re not too excited about their success anymore.”
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