It’s almost a secret.
Removed from the more well-traveled football, baseball and soccer fields and tucked in behind FIU’s outdoor basketball courts, that’s where 21 young women labor under the sun, repeatedly jumping barefoot and emerging from the hot sand to slam ferocious spikes.
Yes, it’s beach volleyball season, and the FIU Panthers are ranked 12th in the nation. Last season, the Panthers made it to the national quarterfinals at Gulf Shores, Alabama, and they lost 3-2 in a match against three-time NCAA champion Southern Cal.
Margherita Bianchin, who is from Venice, Italy, and is one-half of FIU’s All-American beach-volleyball duo along with Rome’s Federica Frasca, believes the Panthers deserve a higher ranking.
“I don’t want to say it’s not fair,” Bianchin said, “but we want to prove that’s not where we should be ranked.”
The Panthers are set to start their seventh season on Feb. 22-23 with four matches in DeLand — against Saint Leo, Eckerd, 15th-ranked Stetson and 14th-ranked Georgia State.
FIU’s schedule gets much more ambitious from there, playing five matches in California — facing reigning national champion and top-ranked UCLA as well as second-ranked Southern Cal, third-ranked Pepperdine and sixth-ranked Hawaii.
On March 15, the Panthers will play locally, challenging Southern Cal again as well as 19th-ranked Florida Atlantic on Fort Lauderdale beach.
Of FIU’s 23 matches, nine of them are against teams ranked among the top seven in the nation. Overall, 18 of the 23 matches are against top-20 teams, including the final 10 of the regular season.
“Our schedule is a tough one,” said FIU coach Rita Buck-Crockett, whose team went 22-12 last season. “But if our goal is to become champions, we need to compete against everyone who will be at nationals.”
Granted, there are just 63 NCAA Division I schools that compete in beach volleyball, making a top-12 ranking not nearly as impressive as it would be in other sports.
However, among schools committed to adding beach volleyball within the next few years are: Oregon State, South Carolina, Penn State, Baylor, Auburn, North Carolina, Maryland and Gonzaga.
In other words, this sport is about to blow up, and FIU is in on the ground floor while the Miami Hurricanes have no beach program.
Ex-Hurricanes indoor volleyball standout Brooke McDermott is a 6-1 graduate transfer at FIU and is giving beach a try.
FIU also added two other converts from the indoor game: Nina Petranovic, a 6-1 senior from Slovenia; and Emma Erteltova, a 6-3 freshman from Slovakia.
“They have to get their sand legs,” Buck-Crockett said of the indoor converts. “Are they ready right now? No, but maybe they’re ready by the end of March, and our team gets stronger.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ FIU’s baseball season will begin on Friday when the Panthers host Stony Brook to start a three-game series.
▪ FIU’s men’s basketball team (14-11, 5-7 Conference USA) has lost four of five games and hasn’t won consecutive games since Nov. 28.
This week, FIU plays home games against Rice on Thursday and North Texas on Saturday.
The Panthers need to finish strong for their first winning season since 2012-2013.