Parity to Make for Wild, Upset-filled, Fun Ride of a College Beach Volleyball Season
Of the many positions Andrew Fuller currently holds in life – head coach of the Stanford beach volleyball team, husband, future father, podcast host – the most difficult could very well be his role as the Pac-12 representative on the NCAA committee.
“I think it’s going to be really wonky,” Fuller said of the upcoming 2019 beach volleyball season. “I’m on the NCAA committee and it’s going to be really hard to keep track of who’s beating who and who has more impressive wins.”
As the beach game grows and matures, with schools adding programs by the dozen each year, and the existing programs improving and finding their identities and cultures, parity is pushing its way into the sport’s lexicon. The biggest piece of evidence one might need came on April 29 of last year, during the NCAA Selection Show.
The top seed was of no surprise. It went to a Southern California team – UCLA – with a rich history of not just a volleyball culture, but a beach one in particular. But when, shortly after, No. 5 was announced, and that name was USC? Three-time defending national champion USC?
At No. 5?
“We went to the semis last year and we almost didn’t make the tournament because we lost to UCLA so many times,” Trojan coach Anna Collier said. “We still almost didn’t go.”
Such is the state of the game, now in its fourth season as an NCAA sport and eighth overall. No longer can one point to a few big-name schools and know with near absolute, unequivocal certainty that they’ll make the NCAA Tournament in May.
“Since 2012, the parity is ramping up each year way more,” said Fuller, whose Cardinal is ranked No. 9 in the DiG Magazine pre-season poll. “At first, I think you could guess with 99 percent accuracy who was going to win a dual in the first couple of seasons.”
Forget, for a minute, predicting who will win a dual. At the moment, coaches are simply trying to pin down a lineup, filtering through the competition within their own program. Not that it was ever an easy, cut-and-dry process to determine a starting lineup, but as the game has developed on a nationwide level, with talent now developing from every corner of the country, the competition for starting spots within power programs has become a pleasant quandary for coaches.
Brooke Niles, for instance, intended to have her lineup at Florida State determined by this fall.
“That,” she said, laughing, “didn’t happen.”
“I have no idea right now who our fifth team is,” Niles, the national runner up from a year ago, added. “Like, no idea. And there’s so many combinations. We play on Saturday and it’s just something we’re going to have to figure out in competition.”
She’s not alone in that regard.
“Your ones are not completely superior to your twos threes fours and fives down the line. The level is closer from one to five,” UCLA coach Stein Metzger said. “We could probably have three different lineups that I think we could be effective with and figuring out which one is going to be the most effective will be tough and it’s a good problem to have, we’re not complaining.”
Few, if any, in the beach game seem to have much to complain about. Collier, as competitive a coach or athlete as one will meet, acknowledges that yes, it will be significantly tougher for USC to string together another three-peat, but it only serves to grow the sport, to make the season as a whole that much more interesting.
“It’s fun because it’s good, competitive volleyball,” Collier said. “If you’re going to be in sport, the main thing you want to do is compete against somebody who is just as good if not better than you so that you’re challenged. It’s fun to win when you’re challenged. It’s not as fun to win when you’re not challenged. And now, the parity, with every team we line up against, we’re like ‘We better bring our A-Game, because this is not the same as perhaps it was in the first year or two.’”
The traditional powers – Pepperdine, UCLA, USC, Florida State – remain the traditional powers, the foundation upon which the college game has been built. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of the programs ranked Nos. 5-20, ranging from the Bayou to Northern and Southern California to the East and Gulf Coasts to the islands of Hawai’i, in Gulf Shores at the end of the year.
“In the past, there were the rich and they got every reasonable recruit, either on the East Coast or the West Coast and that made for some kind of repetitive nature and king of the hill, or queen of the hill, I guess is the nature of our sport,” LSU coach Russell Brock said. “Now, even when you look at the list of high school All-Americans, we don’t even have one on it and we feel like our freshman class is incredible and I feel like a lot of schools probably feel like that. The talent has deepened. Now there’s a good chunk of kids that can really play this game at a high level and they’re ending up at places all over the country. That makes it fun.”
Indeed it does. Every weekend now presents the opportunity for an upset, be it big or small, no matter the location in which the match occurs. Programs such as Cal Poly, which didn’t make Gulf Shores in 2018, have been mentioned as National Championship contenders. Others, be it Tulane, FIU, FAU, South Carolina, Stetson – any team earning a pre-season ranking, really – were named specifically as teams who could reasonably beat anybody.
“As lots of teams get deeper, you can go into matches thinking ‘Whoa, what’s going to happen this weekend? Where’s the big upset going to come?’” said Brock, whose Tigers come in ranked No. 6 by DiG Magazine. “It makes you play the game at a higher level because there’s lots of teams out there that have the potential to play great volleyball. It’ll be super competitive and anytime the quality of volleyball is high everybody benefits. It’s fun.”
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