Beach volleyball raises its sights after showing in New York
June 9, 2013 | Long Beach, N.Y.
For the four men's duos and three women's pairs from Liberty University's beach volleyball team that traveled to Long Beach, N.Y., over the weekend, Sunday's National Collegiate Sand Volleyball Association Northeast Championships showed the first-year program how high it needs to elevate its game to compete nationally.
Playing among 17 men's and nine women's doubles teams, just one of Liberty's seven tandems made it out of pool play and into the actual tournament field — Morgan Jones and Kelly Eldridge, a late replacement for the injured Ivet Mendoza. They were eliminated in the first round.
"We definitely struggled," Flames head coach Drew Sherwood said. "It was a good struggle, though. We got to see, finally, what real beach volleyball looks like. The level of volleyball was so high, way higher than what we've seen. They were all college kids, but they spend every weekend at the beach traveling and playing. That's their life. That's what they do. They play volleyball, they love volleyball, that's their passion."
Besides limited technical ability and tournament experience, in many cases size was a factor that did not favor the Flames.
"Our women's team is 5-(foot-)5, 5-6, 5-7 in their height range and we were playing girls that are 6-0, 6-1, 6-2, taller girls, girls that have been playing beach for a year or two, with a lot of volleyball knowledge," Sherwood said. "We're in our infant stage of learning beach volleyball and we also have a disadvantage of not meeting the height requirement you need to compete at that level."
Competing in a regional tournament that served as a qualifier for the July 22 NCSVA national championships in Long Beach, Calif., those physical factors took some psychological tolls.
"The girls definitely came in confident, ready to play, ready to win, and ready to fight, but I think got a little intimidated," Sherwood said. "When you see a girl that's 6-1 and you're 5-6 and they're hitting pretty hard down in their warm-ups, it can be intimidating for your first tournament."
He expects a stronger team showing at the Virginia Beach Open on July 13.
"Now they have some confidence that they've played at a high level and I think their next tournament when we go to Virginia Beach will be much better because they're ready for it," he said. "Now they have an expectation of what they need to do."
He believes the trip to New York served a dual purpose — giving the first-year program some exposure and equipping its players for better results in the future.
"We might not have finished as well as we wanted to, but I think in the long run, we were able to make a lot of connections with other athletes out there and also to get our team a lot of playing time, a lot of reps to see what level they need to be at in the next year or two," Sherwood said.
Rather than competing against primarily collegiate-sponsored teams in future seasons, Sherwood plans to have Liberty host and schedule trips to as many open tournaments as possible before trying to qualify for nationals.
"We need to be working our way up and getting better by playing better teams," he said. "We're going to focus on tournaments on weekends, in Virginia Beach, Myrtle Beach, Wilmington, N.C., not going to collegiate ones to earn collegiate points."
The plan is to return to next year's Northeast Regional Championships in Long Beach, N.Y., having already played in eight to 10 events so they'll have a better shot at actually getting out of their pools and qualifying for nationals.
Many of the teams the Flames faced in New York enter events more for the prize money than the trophies, as well as the chance to earn a professional contract by winning the collegiate national tournament.
Sherwood sees those incentives as bonuses, but not the main objectives for Liberty's players. He desires to build a program, similar to the NCAA women's indoor team coached by Shane Pinder, that glorifies God by winning championships.
"Our goal is to not necessarily turn these kids into pro beach volleyball players," Sherwood said. "For the school, we want to win a national title and if they happen to transition into a pro beach volleyball player, that's just great exposure for the university and our program. But I think we're a little ways from getting there."
Short-term goals Sherwood has in mind are more tangible.
"We need to get the knowledge of beach volleyball here," he said. "We need to get more repetition for our players. We need freshmen coming in who have volleyball experience, that are coming here because we have great beach volleyball facilities, a great beach volleyball program, and we start to build up a dynasty.
"Shane Pinder's built up a tradition and it's taken a long time, a lot of hard work," he added. "He's really transitioned a program into something that has continual growth. They strive for perfection from their athletes, they strive to be the best. They want to win everything. They've got their priorities straight. They put God first, they put volleyball second and they get results from that. That's where we want to take the team is to that level."
Though none of Liberty's tandems qualified for next month's nationals, Sherwood plans to take one men's and one women's pair to Long Beach, Calif., based on which team earns the most points in tournament play and practice.
"They have pool play there that you can try to get in, still, and we're going to try to get a guys team and a girls team in," he said. "It's definitely going to be a big step but we always go expecting the best out of our players."
That trip should be another eye-opening experience that again raises the bar for the players and the program.
"Whether we barely get in (or don't make the cut), it's about the exposure," Sherwood said. "In California, volleyball's a different level out there and to get to the national championship, it's a step above where we just came from in the Northeast."