Feb. 23, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
It may be year three of South Carolina beach volleyball’s existence, but the program and the sport are taking a big leap forward in 2016. This is the first year that beach volleyball teams across the nation will compete as an official NCAA Championship sport, and the Gamecocks will be competing in a conference for the first time in its short history, with a championship of its own on the line.
“The postseason tournament will lend a championship experience for these student-athletes,” said South Carolina head coach Moritz Moritz. “It’s always been a goal to have that, so it’s one more thing that we can add to the goals list for the entire season. So now there is a little more motivation and a little more fire in them as we get ready for the season. That’s kind of neat.”
“It means a whole lot because with it just being our third year, it helps bring a lot of talent to the south, not just South Carolina,” said senior Sarah Blomgren. “It brings more attention to the sport that hasn’t been there as much in this part of the country. It means a lot towards how we are perceived by other people who don’t know the sport. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if we were a club sport, and now we can say we’re an NCAA Division I championship sport.”
“NCAA president Mark Emmert was here on campus recently,” said senior Litsa Darby. “He was talking about ‘March Madness’ for basketball, and how it brings in a community of people who just love the game. I think the NCAA knows that there is a large group of people who just love this game and want to watch it and follow it. For them to be there for us and back us with this opportunity is insane. We’re so excited for it.”
With only a couple of Southeatern Conference schools offering the sport, the Gamecocks will be competing in the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association (CCSA) along with Alabama-Birmingham, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Florida State, Georgia State, LSU, and Tulane.
“There are no slouches in this conference,” Moritz said. “Florida State has been the dominant powerhouse in our region, and Georgia State and Florida International were at the national tournament last year. Those three may be the bench marks right now, but I feel like a lot of the schools in our region are starting to catch up to them and push them a little bit more than in the past.”
Becoming an NCAA championship sport increases the opportunity for exposure to beach volleyball, which is already gathering a big following at South Carolina.
“It will help elevate beach volleyball, elevate the level of our conference and elevate the level of competition on this side of the country,” Moritz said of a chance to play for championships. “It’s huge because the sport needs that recognition. We need something that will set us apart and keep us on par with the other sports at the same time. Everyone thinks of beach volleyball as a Southern California kind of thing, but the reality is that you have teams like Florida State, Florida International and Georgia State, who have been in the national tournament the last couple of years, and teams like us, LSU, UAB and Tulane that are all making that push to elevate the level of play on this side of the country.”
Unlike many other sports, there will not be automatic NCAA tournament bids for conference regular season or tournament winners this year, but that could be coming in the future. The CCSA will recognize a league tournament champion, which creates the excitement of having trophy to play for before the NCAA tournament begins.
“A majority of the teams in our conference are playing each other already during the regular season, but this will be an added bonus to have that conference postseason tournament,” Moritz said. “Winning the conference tournament would certainly add to the (NCAA tournament) resume. We have some of the strongest teams in the region in this conference, so this is an additional step that can help in that final push for a bid.”
I think the NCAA knows that there is a large group of people who just love this game and want to watch it and follow it.
A preseason all-conference team will be announced in the near future, and there will be post season all-conference recognition, which will also help bring attention to the sport.
“We have some of the best players in the country here,” Moritz said. “Whether it’s with our team or with some of the other teams in our league, so it’s important to recognize that.”
The players are also excited about the chance to hoist a trophy, whether it’s from the conference and/or from the NCAA Tournament.
“If we could take the conference championship in the first year, that would be so amazing,” Darby said. “Every one of us are out here working hard every day no matter what the weather is like. To have that kind of opportunity is something that would make my college career for sure.”
While he is excited to be in a conference, Moritz also looks forward to the day when enough Southeastern Conference schools add beach volleyball so it can become a championship sport in the conference in which the rest of the Gamecock programs compete.
“That’s something we’re targeting down the road, but we’ll cross that road when we get there,” Moritz said. “At this point, it’s all about representing South Carolina and the CCSA as best as we possibly can. If that is something that comes down the road, then we will be super excited for there to be an SEC beach volleyball entity and to be able to push that to the forefront of the country.”
The Gamecocks were ranked 17th in a preseason national poll, but the Gamecocks are more concerned with focusing on the first match.
“Winning the day is the most important thing,” Moritz said. “It’s about daily improvement. The ranking is great, and we really appreciate the recognition, but now we have to go out an earn it. That’s the next step for us.”
The Gamecocks will focus on the individual matches, and they are looking forward to getting their feet back in the sand to start their journey towards a possible postseason.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the fans, the support, and just seeing how we come out ready to play,” Blomgren said. “That’s what we’ve been training for all of these months.”
“I’m really excited for where beach volleyball is going,” Darby said. “I excited not only for us as Gamecocks, but for the entire sport as well. Sarah and I have been here since the beginning of it, and it just keeps getting better every year.”
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