LSU is Finally Home
It was, to most, nothing. Just a song sung in front of a small crowd on a brisk and damp Louisiana Friday night.
Yet it was everything.
Arms linked, teammates swaying back and forth, singing the fight song together along with what was left of a crowd of 500-plus after a 5-0 sweep of Coastal Carolina – it was everything Russell Brock and the LSU Tigers envisioned since opening the doors to the beach volleyball program in 2013-14.
After five years, LSU was home.
“We’ve seen teams do that forever,” Brock, coach of the LSU beach volleyball team, said of singing the fight song in one’s own stadium. “So to finally be able to do that in front of our fans in that stadium – it was pretty powerful.”
The Tigers have one of the most delightful stories in beach volleyball. Year after year, they’re the plucky underdogs who could, the ones who, with a smattering of under-recruited diamonds in the rough, athletes with little to sometimes no beach experience, challenge the best in the country.
In five and a half seasons, the Tigers have compiled a record of 87-43, establishing themselves as one of the major powers in the East. They’ve done it without top 50 recruits and blue chip prospects. They’ve done it without the help of girls who have grown up playing beach. And they’ve done it, until this past Friday night, without a place on campus to call home.
For the past five seasons, LSU has played at a beach volleyball complex in Baton Rouge called Mangos. There is no doubt that it’s an excellent facility. The sand is deep. The nets, colored deep purple and gold for LSU, are in great condition. The courts are plentiful. But there’s a different feel when home is on campus and when it’s not, when fans, already on the uneducated side – for the most part, though there are of course the diehards – when it comes to beach volleyball, have to drive around town to find their beach team.
So you can see why Brock and the Tigers were on the emotional side when they finished the fight song. When they finished singing it on campus. In front of a home crowd. When they were able to join in on the traditions of every other LSU athletic program.
“There’s nothing like it,” assistant coach Drew Hamilton said. “I’ve been around a lot of places, there is nothing like it that you’ll see anywhere.”
He was speaking of the stadium though you could apply that same sentiment to the program as a whole. No other team in the country, almost regardless of sport, gets the most out of its athletes quite like LSU, which isn’t a slight to other schools but a nod to the Tiger coaching staff.
They know their limitations. Know they cannot compete with the natural beaches of Hermosa and Manhattan and Santa Monica and Zuma. Know the girls attaining their AAAs on the CBVA as teenagers will likely choose the Southern California mainstays in USC, UCLA or Pepperdine.
So they look for the coachable ones, the kids with, Hamilton shrugged and said, simply, “athleticism. Just how they move on the court and also their mentality is a big part. Girls who seem excited to be there, playing with joy, positive, that’s a huge factor because that can make or break a pair.”
It’s that mentality that drew court one blocker Claire Coppola to LSU. A native of Arizona, going West would have been the closer move and, in the context of beach volleyball, likely a wiser career choice at the time. But she loved the family vibe in Baton Rouge. She loved the coaches. And it didn’t take long for her to be equally enamored with the defender they’d choose to be her partner on court one, Kristen Nuss.
Nuss fit the exact mold Hamilton spoke of, the gym rat who can pick up a ball or bat and hop on a court and likely be good at whatever it is she tried. A three-sport athlete in high school, Nuss was a Gatorade Player of the Year candidate, a 5-foot-6 dynamo who finished her prep career with nearly 2,000 digs and more than 1,000 kills. “Kristen is very gifted athletically, so she can train and do things that are tailored to her,” Hamilton said. “We try and maximize every girl, what they’re capable of individually so you wind up with different types of players so it can be challenging to train them differently and give them different mentalities and different mindsets on the court. You can’t do a cookie cutter thing.” There is no one size fits all approach at LSU, but a personalized program that maximizes each individual skill set. Most of the time, that skill set is narrowed down to the meat and potatoes of beach volleyball: passing, and siding out. While programs like UCLA will deploy a deep playbook filled with various different sets and tempos, LSU’s method is so down to Earth it verges on being quite boring, really. Pass, set, hit. “We really try to keep things simple and allow them to get better that allow them to be successful offensively and defensively without overloading them with lots of techniques or strategies,” Brock said. “We’d just slow their developmental process. If we get really proficient at the things that we do and we do them well, and we can stay consistent and do those things over and over, we have the ability to improve farther and farther than we would if we were to try to teach them a deep playbook and all of these things. Rather than be decent at a lot of things we try to be great at a few things.
“In our sport, you can keep it simple and you can be really good at being simple. If you can side out, you can compete with anybody.” They’ve proven they can do just that. Already this season, LSU has knocked off current No. 3 Florida State, then-No. 2 Pepperdine and then-No. 5 Hawai’i. The Tigers have ascended to No. 4 in the country. On court one, Nuss and Coppola have been named AVCA Pair of the Week. “We go in and it’s an LSU style of play,” Nuss said. “That’s a credit to the coaches.” That style of play can now be featured on campus, in a home of their own. Next weekend, they will host North Florida, Tulane, Georgia State and Southern Mississippi in their new stadium. They’ll play matches in the afternoon, they’ll play matches under the lights. Finally, the LSU Tigers will be home.
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