St. Mary’s, the Indoor Team Finding Success on the Beach
It wasn’t necessarily disbelief from the guys running the PA system at the Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic this past weekend, but it wasn’t far from it.
“St. Mary’s is going to sweep Stanford,” one said. And then he said it again, as if the words hadn’t quite sunk in.
“St. Mary’s is going to sweep Stanford.”
At that moment, courts two, four and five were in the third set at Queen’s Beach. Courts one and three had already been sealed up for the Gaels, by Lindsey Knudsen and Sarah Chase and Crash Parker and Sienna Young, respectively.
Court two’s pairing of Emily Bible and Lindsey Calvin had jumped out to a blink-and-you-missed-it 10-1 lead over Stanford’s Courtney Bowen and Tori Ashkinos in the third. Court four’s Morgan Kendrick and Boo Laird had recovered from a 10-21 loss in the first set to Amelia Smith and Melissa Daniel with a 21-13 second set win and established an early lead in the third. Court five, Chandler Cowell and Selbie Christensen, after splitting the first two sets in lopsided affairs with the Cardinal’s Blake Sharp and Jordan McKinney, were up 14-11 in the third.
Yes, St. Mary’s was going to sweep Stanford.
Upsets happen all the time in sports. And upsets especially happen in the first weekend of a season, sometimes for no obvious or tangible reason at all. But this one was unusual, even for a sport’s opening weekend.
It was unusual because St. Mary’s’ beach team isn’t really a beach team. It’s an indoor-based collection of athletes who play beach in the spring. Only one player who traveled this weekend, Morgan Kendrick, is beach-only. The rest identify volleyball positions not necessarily by blocker or defender, but by middle, outside, libero, opposite.
“It’s different. Stanford has a full-time program and Cal has a full-time program,” St. Mary’s coach Rob Browning said of his Northern California rivals. “We’re playing indoor. We’ve got a few beach-only athletes but most of our players are not touching the sand from August to January.”
And three of the Gaels’ best players – Knudsen, Chase and Calvin – didn’t even touch the ball from January to February, either. Rather than getting reps in and practicing with the team, they were doing an overseas January term, Knudsen in Italy, Chase and Calvin in Australia.
“Does it look like I’ve been eating pasta for 30 straight days?” Knudsen joked. “Because I’ve been eating pasta for 30 straight days.”
No, actually, it didn’t. In her four matches on court one with Chase – after never having played together in a competitive match – Knudsen pushed UCLA’s Sarah Sponcil and Lily Justine to three sets and beat Stanford’s court one of Charlie Ekstrom and Sunny Villapando in two. The only lopsided match of the weekend came against Pepperdine’s Brook Bauer and Heidi Dyer, though most matches Bauer and Dyer played were lopsided affairs, their only loss coming to UCLA’s Nicole and Megan McNamara in a wild ride of a match.
“We didn’t really have any expectations because of the lack of training that most of us have done,” Chase said. “We just tried to play the best volleyball we can and hopefully it works out. I think over the weekend it got better and better.”
Given that it’s February, every program has room for growth. Most, especially Stanford, which starts five freshmen, one on each court, will be a significantly improved product come May. But no team in Hawai’i this past weekend has more untapped upside than St. Mary’s, which will finally, finally, get to practice. As a team. With everyone in the same country.
“There’s a big upside and we’re excited about that,” Browning said. “I think it’s a testament to our two through five, who are all really competitive with one another. Our fives team beats twos when we scrimmage. But you don’t know, really, until you play some of these matches.”
Until you play, you know, beach volleyball.
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