Long Beach State Only Looking for Inches — And a Big West Title
It took all of a week for Mari Molina to buy in. Maybe less than that. She’d always wanted to go to Long Beach State, so bad that, after helping Cabrillo Community College win a state championship indoors in 2018 before going 24-1 on court one, she transferred early.
Thus the first piece of the 2019 rebuild was in place.
Anybody who followed Long Beach State’s beach volleyball team from 2018 would hardly recognize the one taking the beach this season. Of the 10 starters from the team that went 26-8 and narrowly missed Gulf Shores at the end of the year, only three – Nicci Reinking, Zoi Konstantopoulou, Megan Kruidhof – are back. Most of the attrition can be attributed to graduation, though All-Big West Second Team defender Hailey Harward – an indoor standout as well – is taking a red shirt this year with a foot fracture.
Such is the value of an athlete like Molina, a new face on a roster filled with new faces, who brings with her an indisputable and charming zest for all things Long Beach State volleyball.
“A kid like Mari bought in the first week but you got other kids who take a little longer and that’s the natural dynamic of the team,” coach Mike Campbell said. “It just takes patience for them to come on board.”
The rebuild begins with the vision. It’s been the same every year Campbell has been at the helm of Long Beach’s program: Win the Big West Conference Championship. It’s a title that the NCAA selection committee has typically seen as a reliable measuring stick for whether a team is worthy of making the NCAA Tournament.
But the vision is the broad lens, the carrot at the finale of the season. From there, Campbell narrows the scope, focusing on the tiniest of gains, the most minuscule of victories. Imagine a more laid-back Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday and that’s the image one might get when listening to Campbell speak of the progressive nature of this team.
“At this level, the talent has become so good, all we’re fighting for is little inches,” Campbell said. “We’re just fighting for a couple inches here and there. I always tell the kids ‘Just fight for a fraction of a second advantage at the net or on the pull or something. Just fight to get a fraction of a second ahead and you’re going to, over a season, be successful. If you can be that broad with your lens.’”
It’s easier for some athletes than for others. Take Kruidhof, Molina’s partner on court two, for example. A two-time league champ at Lakewood High School, she was recruited to Long Beach for indoor. Prior to her freshman year, she had never played on the sand.
“She still doesn’t like getting sandy,” Molina said, laughing.
“It’s growing on me,” Kruidhof replied, also laughing (they do that a lot).
It seems it is. A 14-9 record as a freshman turned into 27-5 as a sophomore and 18-7 as a junior. On court two with Molina, she is 9-3 this year, the only losses coming to Pepperdine (twice) and Florida State. All three losses have come by two points in the deciding set.
“We’re the underdogs so I feel like people are always looking over us but we’re hanging in there with every team,” Kruidhof said. “We’re only losing by two points, and ‘almost’ only counts in horseshoes and hang grenades but we’re there. I think everybody needs to believe that we’re good enough.”
The athletics department is beginning to show its belief in the program as well. It has always given the beach team its support, though it would have been nearly impossible for it to predict just how quickly the sport has grown, and the arms race for facilities and scholarships that have ensued. This year, for the first time, Campbell is a full-time coach on the beach, no longer splitting time between indoor and the sand. They now have 14 beach players. The combination of a beach-only coaching staff with beach-only players made for a fall season in which old habits could be broken down, new habits could be put in place, and a team totally rebuilt from a year ago could begin to take shape as the one that would compete in the spring. “In the beginning, Mike explained to us what Long Beach was and how we wanted to play the game,” Molina said. “He makes it very clear and he also makes it clear that we’re going to be doing a lot. So we work really, really hard in the fall so in the spring we can be where we want to be.” They are getting there. With an 8-4 record through Friday the 22nd, Long Beach has seen its share of ups and downs. A win over Stetson can be contrasted with a sweep to Pepperdine, the first time the Waves have ever swept Long Beach at home. Campbell isn’t so much concerned about the record at the moment as he is with the progress, the inches here and there, the small gains that will, ideally, result in their first Big West Championship. “They know what the vision looks like for me. That vision starts with conference championships,” he said. “We start with that, and if that doesn’t work out, we treat every match as if it’s our most important match because you never know what the committee is looking at. That’s something that is out of our control – what they’re basing their criteria off of. So every time we play an opponent we just try to win. It’s a simple formula.” It’s just, when it comes down to it, an inch.
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