Florida International U

FIU’s sand volleyball team making great leaps in just its third year

Maryna Samoday teams with Anja Licka in the No. 1 pair for FIU’s sand volleyball team.
Maryna Samoday teams with Anja Licka in the No. 1 pair for FIU’s sand volleyball team. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

On a cloud-free morning, Caribbean beach music set a suntanning rhythm across sand volleyball practice on FIU’s main campus. The perpetual on-break setting belies the ambitious desire for immediate grand gratification driving FIU’s nationally ranked sand volleyball team.

“We all come in with this ‘We want a national championship,’ ” team captain and senior Aren Cupp said. “I feel like last year, it was ‘Let’s get to nationals, let’s get to nationals.’ And this year, it’s ‘National championship.’ Every girl. Every single one.”

Senior Kristina Monforte said, “This year, we have bigger girls. More fifth-year seniors. So, it’s kind of like ‘Go big or go home’ for us.”

Results and rankings say FIU has more than a chance. The Panthers, who host the Doctors Hospital FIU Surf & Turf Invitational in Miami Beach’s Lummus Park on Friday and Saturday, have a 12-1 record. That includes a 3-0 record against other teams in the March 24 American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 10 poll that put FIU at No. 6 four days before the Panthers beat defending national champion and No. 3 Pepperdine.

According to the AVCA, as of January, 50 schools fielded teams in sand volleyball (pronounced “beach volleyball” when the nation watches Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh win Olympic gold). It’ll be an NCAA-sanctioned sport next season after four seasons as an “emerging” sport. Three years ago, FIU athletic director Pete Garcia cited sand volleyball as a sport in which FIU could quickly be nationally relevant because they weren’t starting in chase mode compared to everyone else in the nation.

Well, sort of. Much of sand volleyball’s power comes from the Pacific coast, where volleyball’s woven into the whole image of life, especially in Southern California. Pepperdine won the 2012 and 2014 AVCA national titles and the USC now No. 1 in the polls isn’t South Carolina.

But FIU has caught up quickly after hiring Rita Buck-Crockett to coach the sand team and oversee the indoor volleyball program.

“Me as a person, I want to win nationals my first year,” Buck-Crockett said. “That’s just me. That’s why I was hired. I was hired to get FIU a national championship in sand. So from the day I accepted this position, I started thinking about how am I going to do that.”

In 2013, the program’s first year, two FIU pairs got invited to the national pairs competition and Jessica Mendoza and Maryna Samoday got to the semifinals. Last year, the AVCA national team tournament ushered FIU in the door, then Hawaii and Florida State bum-rushed FIU out in one day, 4-1 and 5-0, respectively.

This year, FIU edged No. 4 Florida State 3-2. But doing the same against Pepperdine sent a message on two different levels.

“It was the best feeling, beating that West Coast team,” Cupp said. “Beating our rivals, FSU. But it’s really put us in this [mind-set], we can’t stop here. We need to keep pushing. We beat Pepperdine 3-2. Next time, it needs to be 5-0. Beat FSU 3-2. Next time, it needs to be 5-0.”

Monforte said, “It’s just showed we’re here, we’re serious about this year. People kind of overlook the East Coast. We’re trying to do big things for the East Coast and show it’s not just the West Coast that wins every year.”

The No. 5 pairing of Cupp and Tina Tohiyani, 7-0 this year, is the only pair of FIU’s regular top five that doesn’t include a transfer or a freshman. It’s also the pair that Buck-Crockett lauded for its leadership by example after working their way back into the top five pairs (a match comprises the results of five pairs matches).

Freshman Anja Licka is paired with senior Maryna Samoday in the No. 1 pair. FIU’s most athletic pair puts transfer from North Florida Anna Budinska with senior Martyna Gluchowicz. The No. 3 pair is usually Marina Boulanger and FAU transfer Darija Sataric.

Much like FIU’s Conference USA champion swimming & diving team, success depends on integrating newcomers from across the country or the Atlantic Ocean into the team and FIU life.

Cupp said, in addition to team dinners and the usual early navigating, once every two weeks, “we get together with our team psychologist and we do group work that really helps us generally get to know each other and feel each other out as players and people. It really helps us on the court with our compatibility.”

Monforte and Summer Nash, a transfer from San Diego State, ran off 11 consecutive match wins before losing over three sets last week to South Carolina’s No. 2 pair. Monforte didn’t know Nash before this school year. Now, they maintain the same class and weight room workout schedules after bonding through volleyball and “an obsessive passion” for cooking.

They love the Food Network three-round elimination show Chopped. It’s an apt metaphor for FIU’s program. It has gotten past the appetizer round the first year and the entrée round the second year.

Now, they’re looking to win the dessert round and the whole thing.