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Stetson wins historic opener

Stetson Makes History, Stunning USC in Championship Opener

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Five days ago, Kristina Hernandez had a speech prepared. A speech that wouldn’t lessen the blow of not hearing Stetson’s name called on Selection Sunday, but she had to say something, didn’t she?

She’d have kept it simple, something like “‘Hey, we gotta keep working hard!’” the coach said.

No speech needed, coach.

When USC was called first, earning the top seed in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament after winning the Pac-12 Championship, Hernandez knew that if Stetson wasn’t next, Stetson wouldn’t be in. She’d have to deliver the speech she never intended to give. She held her breath. And then she heard it.

“Stetson!”

“It was this rush of emotion,” she said.

It would be nothing to what came five days later.

It’s a Friday morning in Gulf Shores. The first match of the NCAA Tournament. Hernandez’s Hatters versus those white-hot Trojans of USC, the same Trojans that have run the beach volleyball world for the past half-decade. A school of less than 4,500 versus one of 44,000. A school located in Northeast Florida versus one centered in the Mecca of the sport.

That wasn’t the narrative Hernandez’s team read. It might have been what everybody else was thinking, but not the Hatters.

“It’s funny,” she said. “Everybody kept asking about USC, and what we’d have to do to beat them. We prepped all week for USC, don’t get me wrong, but we didn’t get fixated on who they were. We prepped like any other game we would. They were just as normal as they always were this morning.

“When we’ve put a higher-ranked opponent on a pedestal and tried to do pre-game speeches and big motivational things we just kinda fell flat, so we just focused on preparing all week on what we wanted to do offensively and executing that. We just didn’t talk about us playing USC. We knew we were playing them but we just weren’t fixated on their ranking and them being who they are.”

She’s on court five, Hernandez. Up 19-10 in the second set. Stetson’s claimed four of the five first sets. Never before in NCAA Tournament history had a single eighth-seeded pair beaten a top-seeded pair, and now the Hatters have four.

A roar on court two. Stetson’s Darby Dunn and Sammee Thomas were up 20-18. Had it been a roar for USC, making a comeback? Or had it been the clincher for the Hatters? Court two is as far as it gets from court five.

And then she hears it – “Darby did it! Darby did it!”

One court to go. Court five. A nine-point lead that wouldn’t be relinquished. Quinci Birker and Rebecca Ingram finished it, winning 21-16, 21-17, sealing the 3-1 win. The first eight to beat a one. The first of what is looking to be many wrenches thrown into the bracket.

“I know everybody was banking on us being out,” Hernandez said. “I think there are so many good teams now, and everybody is getting more competitive that I just don’t think you can say that anymore.”

Walking off the court, an LSU player greeted Hernandez with a high-five and a congratulations.

“The East,” the Tiger said, “loves the East!”

And then LSU went out and upset Pepperdine, 3-0.

East Coast 2, West Coast 0.

Funny thing, though: With both upsets secured, now that same LSU player encouraging Hernandez will be matched up against her later in the day.

“We’re all trying to fight that East-West battle,” Hernandez said. “And now we have to play each other.”

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