Stetson Playing 2019 Season With a Narrow Focus: Making Nationals
It might have been a surprise to some in the beach volleyball world when, on April 28, eight names were called at the NCAA Selection Show and Stetson wasn’t one of them.
Of all people, actually, it was the Hatters who expected it. Yes, they had gone 30-8 and set program records and won the ASUN Conference again. Yes, on paper, it looked quite dazzling. But “we didn’t really beat anyone,” coach Kristina Hernandez said. “We didn’t have any significant wins. We lost to Georgia State, we lost to South Carolina, we lost to FIU, so we didn’t really have any good, good wins.
“We beat everybody we were supposed to beat and everybody ranked below us but it wasn’t really – we just didn’t do anything to put our name out there. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t anything significant.”
Something significant. If nothing else, something significant is an apt two-word summation of Stetson’s mindset this year. There is one goal. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Gulf Shores. The NCAA Tournament.
To be a team not left out of that same NCAA Selection Show about a month from now.
“We just totally shifted the focus to getting to the national championship,” Hernandez said. “And that’s what we’re talking about. And that’s all we’re doing.”
Already, they’ve picked up several wins and milestones the 2018 team could have labeled as “significant.” To open the season, the Hatters beat Georgia State. No, not just beat – swept Georgia State, something they’d never done before.
“It was incredible and it really set the tone for the season,” senior Rachel Noble said.
It has remained that way. A West Coast trip in early March was met with wins over LMU and Long Beach State. Since returning East, the Hatters have beaten Georgia State again, picked up an increasingly good-looking win over South Carolina, took down Florida Atlantic twice and added a victory over Arizona.
“I think it’s a lot of that reaffirmation from us that we’ve had our heads down, we’ve worked really hard,” Noble said. “Coming from a smaller school, people are always very surprised when we do well because we don’t have the big state school funding and it isn’t as big of a school but for us it was amazing and it was showing us that we have a right to be confident about what we’re doing because we have the talent and the skill to take those big matches.”
Much of this can be attributed to nine of 10 starters returning and courts one, three and five remaining the exact same as they were a season ago. While some programs are still tinkering with lineups, experimenting with who should go where and with what partner, Stetson had its lineup determined by the second week of January.
Even when Hernandez took maternity leave this pre-season, nothing really changed. The Hatters were exactly who they were a year ago, only with one added year of experience and a new goal in mind.
“The team vibe this year is that we have one goal and that is nationals,” senior Julie Varga said. “We want to grind out every match and prove that we are worth being in that top 10, top eight.”
Hernandez and the athletics department played their role in providing the opportunities to prove Stetson’s mettle. Despite being in a conference that is not loaded with chances for marquee wins, Stetson’s schedule is as difficult as any. When Hernandez took inventory of the 2018 schedule, she knew the Hatters needed a stronger test from start to finish. It’s exactly why the Hatters are competing at Florida International’s Surf and Turf Invitational this weekend.
Initially, they had Florida Gulf Coast on the schedule. Hernandez asked if the Hatters could move the FGCU dual up, making room for this weekend’s brutal slate of LSU, UCLA, TCU and Tulane, four opportunities for ranked wins.
“We went through every game on our schedule the week before we started playing and I just chunked them out,” Hernandez said. “We went through it with them and said this is going to make or break what we’re doing so when we get into season we’re not making one match bigger than the other.”
It has worked thus far. Stetson is currently ranked No. 7 by p1440 and 10 by the AVCA. If the season were to end right now, it would be a toss-up whether or not the Hatters would hear their name called to compete in the NCAA Tournament. But this much is for sure: With the schedule they have put together, and the wins they have compiled thus far, they’d have a chance.
“This weekend is for sure a very big weekend for us,” Varga said. “We need to make a big statement.”
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