There will be an NCAA championship for the first time in college beach volleyball, but Nebraska won’t even try to win this championship.
With 56 schools now having a beach volleyball program, there will be an NCAA championship May 6-8 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Previously, the American Volleyball Coaches Association put on the national championship for beach volleyball. Before this season even began, Nebraska made the decision that it would not try to be one of the eight teams to qualify for the championship tournament.
Because Nebraska is one of the only teams in the Midwest that has a beach volleyball program, playing enough matches to build a resume worthy of an NCAA bid would be a challenge.
Nebraska plays most of its matches during a spring-break trip to Hawaii and California. Nebraska will play about 12 matches this season. Some of the California schools will play about 20 matches.
To compete in the beach championship, Nebraska would have to make changes to its spring indoor season. Now, once the Huskers’ beach season is complete on March 25, they’ll shift back to the gym for one month of practice leading up to a spring match against Colorado on April 23.
Nebraska’s indoor volleyball program has the expectation of winning conference and national championships, but coach John Cook said it doesn't hurt him to concede the chance to compete for an NCAA championship on the beach.
“We just do this as part of our training and development of our players until it’s more realistic for us to do full-time,” Cook said. “Think of our travel budget. It would be bigger than our fall travel budget because we would be flying somewhere every weekend for eight weeks.”
Now in its fourth season, the Nebraska beach volleyball program will make history Wednesday by playing its first home match against Missouri Baptist, which plays most of its sports at the NAIA level. The Spartans are winless in five matches this season.
The match will be played at the Hawks Championship Center, where the Huskers have one indoor sand court. The match is closed to the public because of space limitations.
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Having a beach team allows the Huskers to train more than they would otherwise. Cook thinks the beach program is a vital part of the volleyball program.
“I think it’s a great cross-training for our athletes,” Cook said. “I continue to see us make plays in the fall that I turn to my assistants and say, ‘That’s from sand.’ A great one was Kelsey Fien’s bump against Kansas in the Final Four that made an ESPN top 10 (play). That’s a sand play right there. In the sand you learn how to create.”
When Nebraska started its beach program in 2013, it planned to wait until at least 2017 before deciding how it would proceed as a beach program, which is also when Nebraska will get a full share of Big Ten Conference revenue.
Some schools run the indoor and beach teams as separate programs, while Nebraska uses the same coaches and has no beach volleyball scholarships.
The NCAA says that on average 60 percent of beach volleyball participants don’t play on the indoor team. Some players on beach teams were not tall or good enough to make a college indoor team, which is part of why Nebraska has been able to win on the beach despite its limitations. Nebraska had a 6-2 record last season, and is ranked No. 12 this season.
Nebraska will evaluate whether it’s worth it to put more resources into its beach program, but for now Cook is pleased with how the Huskers are running it.
“All of our indoor players play sand,” Cook said. “They love it. It’s great for them. They all get to play.
“So for like (freshman Tiani Reeves), it’s huge. She’s going to get to compete and play. There are only two of them out there, so she only has to do half the work. She could be in indoor practice and maybe all she does hit and block, and never pass and play defense. Maybe she never even gets set. I just think it’s a really cool deal, and it’s really cool for our players.”
Nebraska’s top two teams this season probably will be the pairs of Amber Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes, and Kadie Rolfzen and Kelly Hunter.