Women’s beach volleyball challenges three NCAA DI programs at UNCW; preps for trip to UT Martin
Liberty University’s women’s beach volleyball team traveled to the University of North Carolina Wilmington, N.C., over the weekend for a two-day tournament featuring both duals and pairs play in windy conditions against UNCW, Mercer University, and the College of Charleston.
While the Lady Flames returned with three setbacks — falling to Charleston, 5-0, Mercer, 3-2, and UNCW, 5-0 in Saturday’s duals action — they gained a better understanding of where they stand as a Club Sports team going toe to toe against NCAA Division I programs.
“Overall (Assistant Coach) Jess (Nelson) and I were so proud of all of the play for the day,” Liberty Head Coach Kaleb VanDePerre said. “We could see growth happening during the games and our team never looked defeated or hopeless, which is huge considering the opponents we were facing.”
In the opener against Charleston, which features tall and physical pairs, the most competitive match was at No. 1, where Liberty’s tandem of junior Kaitlyn Holbrook and sophomore Lizzy Armstrong battled to a 23-21, 21-17 defeat.
“Lizzy was huge at the net for us and we played really crisp, error-free for most of the match,” VanDePerre said. “(Overall), they beat us up pretty good, and jumped on us early as we adjusted to their size and physicality.”
Against Mercer, Liberty had a much stronger showing, notching its second and third individual wins against an NCAA DI opponent in program history. Senior Jenae Baker and sophomore Syd Metzker, the Lady Flames’ No. 4 duo, scored the first team point in the dual before the No. 2 pair of seniors Lexi Kruse and Heather Forton pulled out an incredible three-game victory, winning the tie-breaker, 16-14.
“As the wind picked up, we made some really good adjustments and could see things clicking that we have been working on for a few weeks,” VanDePerre said, noting that the No. 5 pair of freshman Grace Kennelly and junior Riley Smith and No. 3 tandem of freshman Jill Kater and sophomore Cara Lecklider lost competitive matches before Holbrook and Armstrong bounced back from a slow start and being blown out in the first game at No. 1 before pushing Mercer to a 21-18 second-game setback in the decisive dual. “We felt really good about how all the courts played and competed, the best we have looked as a team from 1 through 5 all year.”
Tournament host UNCW, which went 3-0 in dual play on the day, swept the Lady Flames in their final match, with Kennelly and Smith dropping a tough three-game showdown at No. 5, 15-12 in the third game.
“Our No. 1s battled tough, playing one of their better games of the day, but UNCW was just too much,” VanDePerre said. “Their experience in the wind, and size and speed made things really tough for us to cap off the day.”
Sunday’s pairs event grouped the Nos. 1-3-seeded teams in one bracket and the Nos. 4-8 tandems in another with pool play followed by single-elimination playoffs.
Of the eight Liberty combinations competing, a highlight was the duo of senior Claire Kostreva and junior Audrey Antesberger earning two playoff wins.
“They have shown so much improvement and got to battle some higher ranked pairs than they have seen before and showed they can compete,” VanDePerre said.
“It was a very productive weekend,” Nelson added. “You could definitely see so much growth and we are excited that we’re getting to play many more duals in this format with two or three matches in a day.”
Liberty will travel to face three more NCAA DI programs over the weekend of April 1-2 at the University of Tennessee Martin, opening play on Friday against the host team at 10 a.m. before playing Missouri State at 2 p.m. and Tulane University, a highly ranked DI team and Ottawa (Kansas) University, an NAIA program, back-to-back on Saturday.
“As we prepare for UT Martin, we know it will take some special effort to battle with them, which will be a priority in practices for the next two weeks,” Nelson said. “We will be focusing on competing with physical players at the net and striving for consistency in executing shots in our offense, and defensively.”