Florida State Winning With Grit
It was right there for everyone at the Manhattan Beach Pier to see, the grit that Brooke Niles and her Florida State Beach volleyball team would talk about as the fundamental glue to their vastly overhauled team this season.
Alaina Chacon and Madison Fitzpatrick had allowed USC’s Terese Cannon and Sammy slater to climb back in the third set – 14-11, 14-12, 14-13.
“Just side out,” Niles said from her spot one court over, coaching Payton Rund and Brooke Kuhlman. It wasn’t so much a command as an encouragement. All it took was just a side out.
It would have been easy for the wheels to fall off from there. To watch three match points disappear against a West Coast rival is one thing. To watch it disappear just three days after losing 15-13 in the third set to that very same team could have been debilitating. It wasn’t.
Chacon and Fitzpatrick recovered, Chacon flying around on defense, digging with single, out-stretched arms, digging with her hands, digging with her platform. And eventually they did side out, taking the match 16-21, 21-19, 17-15 in front of a packed Manhattan Beach crowd.
A gritty win.
That was the word that continually arose from this Florida State team. It’s a trait that is no doubt required at this point in the season, which is both early and it is not. Less than a month in, Florida State has, at the time of this writing, already played 15 matches, winning 11. The Seminoles have done so despite losing five critical pieces from the National Runners-up team from a year ago, replacing them with five new faces, be it freshmen or transfers.
“We’re definitely very gritty,” Kuhlman, a 2017 All-American, said. “We have new people on each court that have stepped up and done really well. We have a lot of freshmen who have done really well. We have a lot of depth and grit.”
That was on display early in the year, too. An opening loss to LSU on day one prompted the question of how this team would respond to setback. That response came to the tune of nine straight wins, including a 4-1 victory over those same Tigers.
“We find a way,” Niles said, “to win at a different spot each time.”
Sometimes it’s Kuhlman and Rund at the one. Other times it’s Chacon and Fitzpatrick at the two. Sometimes it’s Payton Caffrey and Sara Putt on court four, recovering from a 21-4 drubbing in the first set against UCLA’s Lea Monkhouse and Savvy Simo to win the next two sets, 21-17, 15-11, and fend off a sweep from the Bruins.
“It’s always a test, going out here,” Chacon said of the West Coast. “We get to test our lineup and as soon as we go back it’s a process. We’re hungry.”
For good reason, too. The Seminoles are just one of two programs in the country to make the National Tournament every year since the AVCA adopted college beach volleyball as a sport in 2012, but they have yet to win a title. Three times Florida State has made the finals and fallen short. Two others, the ‘Noles have made the semis.
It’s possible, if that depth and grit coalesce as Chacon, Kuhlman and Niles would like, this could alas be the year they get over that metaphorical hump. Only one West Coast team, UCLA, will get another glimpse at the Seminoles before the NCAA Tournament the first week in May. By then, Florida State could be a completely new team, an evolved, grittier, deeper version of itself.
“The more competition that we have the better it is for us throughout the season,” Kuhlman said. “We love playing teams like [UCLA and USC], and the East Coast is getting stronger and stronger every year so down there, we’re getting better competition than we ever have. I think all of these games, lose or win, we’re learning and growing going into the championship.”
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