‘This is just the beginning:’ Stanford beach volleyball continues to reach new heights

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Andrew Fuller has been involved in college women’s beach volleyball since the founding of the first program, Long Beach State, in 2012. He was also instrumental in starting the program at USC, which has since grown into a national powerhouse. So when Fuller returned to the Bay Area ahead of the 2017 season to coach Stanford’s beach volleyball, which was still in its infancy, expectations were high. And build the Stanford program he did: With back-to-back NCAA Championship Tournament appearances under their belt, the Cardinal is only getting better with each passing year and could soon make his way into conversations about playing football. to be the best program in the country.

In the program’s tenth year, the Cardinal won 24 games — bettering last year’s single-season win record — and qualified for its second straight NCAA Tournament in 2022. Although the team no Winning no game in the tournament, qualifying for the second straight year was an accomplishment in itself, especially as the team is Stanford’s newest.

The list of individual accomplishments is also long: sophomores Kate Reilly and Maya Harvey set a single-season record for most individual games won; Reilly and sophomore Xolani Hodel set a record for most career wins as a couple; and the Cardinal tied his program record for most postseason conference winners with five. Reilly said that while expectations might be higher this season, “I thought we could have done a bit more, but overall, looking back, I think we have a lot of work to do that we can do. be proud.”

“Overall, I would say we had a more successful season than ever before,” added senior Charlie Ekstrom. “I think it ended on a bit sourer note than we might have liked just because of the fact that we tasted like being at the very, very high level of the competition.”

Perhaps even more impressive than the Cardinal’s success in the 2022 season is the fact that their 2021 season was also so successful. After the majority of the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, beach volleyball players were scattered across the United States with no team to practice with. Stanford athletes returned to campus in 2021, just in time for a three-week preseason. The team’s pre-season normally lasts 16 weeks. So not only were the Cardinal athletes coming back from almost a year of training alone, but they also had to come back to competition with less than 20% of their normal pre-season.

“Our teams have done an amazing job preparing themselves to be ready for the season,” Fuller said. “It’s really a testament to their work ethic and determination to be ready on their own without any real coaching from Stanford staff.”

While team practices didn’t resume until the spring of 2021, Reilly, who is from Manhattan Beach, Calif., said many of his teammates also stay in Southern California and sometimes meet to practice. together. Despite the distance leading up to the 2021 season, the team came together to set a school record for total wins in a single season with 23 and qualify for its first-ever NCAA Championship Tournament.

Fuller attributes much of the team’s recent success, particularly over the past two years, to recruiting.

“I was fortunate to be involved in the national team system, this program, for a long time and was able to find myself at the highest levels of the junior game,” Fuller explained. Six athletes currently on Stanford’s roster were affiliated with United States volleyball development programs or the national team at some point before coming to the farm, according to roster information available on GoStanford.

Ekstrom said the number of athletes on the team has increased significantly since its first year in 2018, and while talent has also increased, the fact that the team does not rely on indoor volleyball players to play beach volleyball in the spring made a big difference.

When Ekstrom first arrived at Stanford, the team included 10 season-only beach athletes and three indoor volleyball players to round out the roster — but by the end of the season, the team was no longer there. there were only 10 healthy players between beach athletes only. and those who also played indoor volleyball in the fall. Today, the team has 18 players, all of whom only play beach volleyball.

“For the first time, we had more than one person not traveling,” Ekstrom said. “The depth of our team has just grown exponentially over the past four years. It’s breathtaking when you think about it.

Reilly said that as the depth of the team increased and the program became more established, the team culture changed. She said there was now “more buy-in and we’re trying to push each other to get better and better”.

As a four-year starter and two-time All-American, Ekstrom played a significant role in changing team culture. The team had a losing record in their debut season in 2019 as they struggled with depth and keeping enough healthy players.

“We weren’t ranked at the end of my freshman year, and we didn’t come in unranked, but it was a tough season,” she said. “It was one of those rude awakenings.”

“I know my class,” she added. “When we met before the start of the season, we were so excited to get back to campus to be with everyone just because we were so excited to be as confident as we were and to work to inspire and work with the subclasses.

The increase in team membership also made Fuller’s job as head coach easier. He described his training philosophy as, “Let’s see what we have, then try to sustain it and maximize it.”

But despite everything that has gone well for Stanford in recent seasons, each year has not been without significant challenges. The beach volleyball team has not been immune to the mental health issues that countless athletes have faced. Fuller said the hardest thing he faced at Stanford, outside of recruiting difficulties, was Stanford’s culture of “doing too much,” which can negatively impact its athletes.

In an effort to combat the overwhelming that can easily characterize daily life on the farm, Fuller has brought in Professor Fred Luskin to speak with the team every Tuesday throughout the 2022 season. Luskin is a senior lecturer at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. He regularly gives lectures on the importance of emotional intelligence and stress management.

Although Luskin is not a medical professional, like the psychiatrists students may see at CAPS or Stanford Sports Psychology, Ekstrom said that through activities like guided meditation, Luskin has helped the team to “put things into perspective”.

“He gave us really solid prospects, or really solid opportunities to find happiness or find serenity or find joy in very, very intangible things,” she continued. “It was more about turning the frame of your mind into great gratitude or appreciation.”

Reilly summed it up by saying “[Luskin] was big enough” and that the atmosphere for Tuesday’s training was always different, in a positive way. She said her teammates were “more willing to drop the results or be less self-critical” and her talks always brought the team together.

The team will now turn its attention to building on the positives of this season, as the relatively young squad enters next season with another year of NCAA tournament experience under their belt and three seniors – Ekstrom, Maddie Dailey and Jordan McKinney – planning to return to complete co-terminal master’s degrees next year.

Fuller said this year’s team is made up of about 50-60% underclassmen, as 12 of the 18 athletes on the roster are in their freshman or sophomore year in 2022, according to GoStanford’s roster. Fuller, Ekstrom and Reilly also all pointed out that the beach volleyball program will bring in a phenomenal recruiting class next year, highlighted by players like Ashley Vincent, Line Andersson and Kelly Berardi.

As for the team’s goals, the Cardinal has gone from aiming to qualify for the NCAA championship to hoping to win tournament games and bring home a national title – a testament to the tremendous growth the team has experienced over the last several years. Reilly also said the only two Pac-12 schools Stanford has yet to beat are UCLA and USC, two powerhouse Southern California programs that have combined six Pac-12 championship titles, six appearances in national championship and six national titles between them. . She said another of the Cardinal’s goals is to frustrate these programs.

For now, the athletes have the summer to continue training and will begin their season in eight months, in February 2023.

“I think this is just the beginning,” Fuller said. “We’re nowhere near as good as we’re going to be.”

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