College beach volleyball: Cal Poly’s Center of Effort; LMU’s foreign legion; what’s on tap


The Center of Effort Challenge has vast potential for a late-season shakeup at the top of the college beach volleyball national poll and could even give us a No. 1 vs. No. 2 mega-dual.
Loyola Marymount coach John Mayer discusses how international talent has helped lift his program to prominence.
We also run down the rest of a busy weekend schedule and share the weekly honor roll of decorated pairs.

Loaded lineup for Center of Effort tourney

The potential fallout in national rankings and NCAA Championship seedings from the Center of Effort Challenge this weekend are profound, since the Nos. 1 through 4 teams in the latest AVCA poll grace a field of eight in San Luis Obispo, California.

The competition Friday and Saturday will play down from first to seventh places, meaning that next week’s rankings could, for example, see a new No. 1 if undefeated TCU were to falter. Teams that figure to land highly favorable first-round matchups in the upper half of the 17-team single-elimination draw for the NCAA Championship May 3-7 might just see that script flipped with some unfavorable results.

So in the second-to-last week before six of the nine conference tournaments that will determine the automatic bids to the Big Beach Dance in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Center of Effort event truly will be the epicenter in college beach volleyball. Conference tournaments in the Big West, Atlantic Sun and Southland are next week.

The Center of Effort at Cal Poly’s Swanson Beach Volleyball Complex will include a pool-play phase and a championship phase with matches for first, third, fifth and seventh places.

The first pool: Unanimous No. 1 TCU (28-0), No. 3 UCLA (26-2), No. 19 Pepperdine (15-7) and unranked Cal Poly (11-19).

The second pool: No. 2 USC (21-1), No. 4 Florida State (27-4); No. 6 Loyola Marymount (21-4) and No. 11 Long Beach State (19-11).

Each pool will play a round-robin, then pair off in crossovers based on the finishes in pool play: 1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3 and 4 vs. 4 to determine first, third, fifth and seventh places, respectively. Duals involving Coly Poly’s team will be available on ESPN+ and other duals will be streamed on the Bally Live app, which the AVP has announced has been made compatible with Android devices.

This format creates the tantalizing possibility for fans and the NCAA selection committee of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown that could have a huge impact at the top of the NCAA draw on May 3-7. TCU has rumbled to nine consecutive sweeps since taking a 3-2 victory over No. 7 Grand Canyon on March 25. Two-time defending national champion USC’s only blemish came in a 4-1 loss to the Horned Frogs on March 17 and the Women of Troy have won their last 11 duals.

Florida State and Loyola Marymount will play in the same competition for the third consecutive week. A 3-1 victory over the Seminoles in Tallahassee last weekend helped the Lions jump one spot in the poll and contributed to FSU’s dropping a rung. UCLA went 4-0 last weekend in the Pac-12 North Invitational against teams ranked from ninth to 20th this week.

Mayer’s foreign legion gets results

Carving out beach-volleyball relevance has been daunting for Loyola Marymount in a city that features the only two collegiate programs to win national titles since the sport received full sanction from the NCAA.

In the early years of his tenure, when his Lions would be annihilated by the Pac-12 juggernauts from Los Angeles, USC and UCLA, coach John Mayer noted, “We were fighting with rifles against tanks,” pointing out those programs had gotten into the nascent sand scene earlier and with more serious intent. Mayer was well aware that he would need some anti-tank guns to dent that armor.

Cut off from the fruitful Southern California pipeline that fueled USC’s and UCLA’s championship teams, Mayer has cast his recruiting net far and wide, bringing a bevy of international talent to Loyola Marymount’s campus in the Westchester neighborhood of L.A.’s Westside Region. 

Among the 19 players on his roster can be found athletes from Italy, Chile, Canada, Finland, England, Norway, Sweden and Australia, along with four from California, four from Texas, two from Illinois and one from Nevada. Until a recent injury, the eight internationals frequently were among the Lions’ 10 starters.

Marymount’s program has matured into far more than a third wheel in a crowded city landscape, with consistent high national rankings, third- and fourth-place finishes in the last two NCAA Championships and three consecutive West Coast Conference Tournament titles. The Lions’ four losses in 2023 are to FSU, fifth-ranked LSU twice (both by 3-2 scores) and No. 16 South Carolina. They hold victories over FSU, Grand Canyon, ninth-ranked California, No. 10 Stanford, No. 12 Florida International, 14th-ranked Georgia State (twice), No. 15 Florida Atlantic (twice) and 17th-ranked Tulane.

Mayer credits SoCal’s cosmopolitan nature and its deeply ingrained beach-volleyball culture as significant recruiting advantages when in persuading international athletes to don the crimson-and-blue.

“Being here in California, Los Angeles, it’s attractive for people in Europe, Australia and South America, too,” said Mayer, 40, who moved up to the top job at Marymount in 2015 after serving as a volunteer assistant for four years. “It’s an international city and a desirable location if you love beach volleyball. That’s played into it.”

The American college game has shown to be excellent training for players looking to compete on the international level.

“If you had said this 5-7 years ago, it would have been harder to persuade a (foreign national-team player) of that effect, but now people such as Tina Graudina, obviously (LMU products) Betsi Flint and Sarah Sponcil, the LSU girls (Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss) were immediately successful. So many athletes have gone through the system and have enjoyed (international) success.”

LMU coach John Mayer coaching the Lions at Manhattan Beach in 2022/Andy J. Gordon photo

Mayer ran down more bullet points that illustrate the perks of training and competing for an American beach program.

“We see the opportunity the girls have to play in so many different environments. Manhattan Beach, deep sand, some wind off of the ocean; then you go play in Florida where it’s humid on a campus; then you go to a Gulf Shores, where it’s hard-packed on the beach. All of these different scenarios that you get to play in, that’s a huge part of our sport. And then against all different styles of play. You get to see people going on 2 a lot running back sets, people running different defensive scheming, where maybe if you’re just with your national team in the same training center, seeing the same sorts of players, and then you’re a little shocked by what you see when you get out on the world tour.

“I believe it will continue to attract a ton of international talent. If (LMU has) the opportunity to get a good player, it doesn’t matter that much where they are from to me. If they’re a good student and a good fit, we’d like to bring them in.”

But recruiting skilled athletes from other countries didn’t happen by itself. Mayer’s overseas contacts fostered during his days as one of the top Americans on the world tour factor into that success. He retired from the professional beach ranks after the 2018 season. But the coach was quick to laud the vast contributions made by his assistant, Angie Akers, 46, who also was a decorated pro, being named the FIVB tour’s top rookie in 2009. She also coached with the Dutch national team.

They played on the world tour about the same, “so we have lots of connections in that world,” Mayer said. “It’s led to this person leading to another. Who wouldn’t want to come play for Angie, a great volleyball person, a great coach? She helped lead April (Ross) and Alix (Klineman) to the (Olympic) gold medal and had a lot of success with the Dutch teams. Having Angie here is a huge draw.”

In 2023 in the American men’s picture, it’s no stretch to speculate that Mayer could be a productive pro. A six-time winner on domestic and world circuits, he was named the MVP and Best Defensive Player on the AVP Tour in 2015. But Mayer was bitten by the coaching bug and balked at serving the proverbial two masters.

“I feel like I still could be playing at that level and still be competing to win tournaments,” he admitted. “It wasn’t a physical issue and it wasn’t even a (burnout situation). I loved competing. I loved the 15 years I got to travel the world playing and pushing myself to new levels.

“But I became obsessed with coaching. I had gotten this job at LMU and it was getting bigger and bigger. It felt as if I had to choose one. I either had to go all in on coaching in this program or all in on playing. I felt satisfied with what I had done (as a player) and my thoughts were being more consumed by this program, so I just decided that it was better to be good at one thing than average at two.”

A roster with individuals from so many countries blending with Americans ‘has been big fun,” Mayer said. “We probably have 10 different languages covered, different cuisines that people like, different life experiences. It really opens up your world. I was so lucky to compete and travel around the world (during my pro career). It opened up my perspective and understanding that there was more than just my little circle in California. I love it that my whole team has that interaction and that world view.”

Valma Prihti/LMU photo

The Lions’ top pair of 6-foot sophomore Vilhelmiina Prihti (Valma to her coach and teammates) from Finland and 5-foot-10 grad student Melanie Paul, a true globetrotter, reflect that international flavor. They are 20-3 and ranked No. 5 nationally among the 1s, according to collegebeachvb.com.

“We graduated a ton,” Mayer said. “We lost six starters and most of the blockers, so we knew that Valma would have to fill big shoes this year. She was a wonderful pickup for our program. It’s hard to find full-time blockers, so we were so excited to get her. Valma had a good freshman year. It was a big transition for her. English is a second language and the academic load here is very difficult, but she wound up having a really good season, especially in the second half. She and (the departed) Macy Gordon at the 3s were probably one of my most consistent teams. The second half of the year, they were excellent as they started to click.”

Mayer was effusive about Prihti’s natural blocking talent and the young player’s drive to improve.

“Valma is probably one of the top couple blockers around, not just just as a position blocker, but actually when she is at the net, she is really good at making dynamic moves, talking the hitter into hitting somewhere and then she’ll dive in there,” he said. “She has really improved her setting. She’s just really focused, hard-working, probably a little bit of that Finnish work ethic, they call it ‘sisu.’ Valma will just over and over show up and work and get better. She has been a really great bright spot.”

Prihti’s partner at defender, Paul, transferred to the Lions from WCC rival Pepperdine, where she was a second-team All-American in 2022. Paul had a silver medal and a fourth-place finish in world tour third-tier Future events last summer, representing Germany, and has posted encouraging results on the German Tour.

Melanie Paul/LMU photo

“Melanie is very international,” Mayer noted. “She grew up in Germany, moved to Chile, her mom is from Mexico City. She speaks German and wants to play for the German national team, so she has been training in that system. Pepperdine is in our conference and I watched her beat up on us for the last 3-4 years, so when the opportunity came that Mealnie was in the transfer portal, she was our top target.”

Mayer said that Paul quickly made a difference on his young team on and off of the sand.

“I’m a fellow lefty and always admired her game, not just because she’s left-handed, but because she plays really hard,” he said. “Melanie always (played with) a chip on her shoulder and that’s the kind of girl we want in our program. Bringing her in has been huge, especially this year when the majority of our players are freshman and sophomores. So to have someone with her maturity, her experience and her drive … She is really, really driven. A lot of our freshmen and sophomores look up to her as a role model, how to be a ‘pro’ and go about things at a high level every day. She’s a stud. She’s got a great jump serve and really good transition. She can hit from off the net. Just a fierce competitor. She’s in it for a battle.”

Other internationals for the Lions include Alisha Stevens (Australia) and Abbey Thorup (Canada) on the No. 2 court; Isabelle Reffel (Sweden), the team’s only indoor crossover; Kirstine Garder (Norway); Isabelle Tucker (England); and Anna Pelloia (Italy). Freshman Chloe Hooker, a Southern Californian, and sophomore Reffel were the WCC’s pair of the month for March.

Mayer was realistic about whether his program moving forward might depend less heavily on recruits from other countries.

“The landscape is changing,” he said. In the first five years of his tenure, “none of those (high-profile SoCal recruits) would even respond. And my first year, we won (seven duals out of 25) so there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. In the last couple of years, we’ve been in the conversation with what people would call blue chips, the top players. That started to change when we had some sustainable success. We’ve been in the final four the last two years, so we’ll see how the future goes.

“Generally it’s harder to get the kid who might have grown up here and who follows football and things like that. Whereas if you are from Rome or from Finland, you don’t know the difference between any of it. The ‘name brand’ becomes less important and you want to find the right fit. We’ll see if that continues to change if we keep on putting together great years.”

Loyola Marymount, which debuted three new on-campus sand courts in March, has the opportunity to drive a wedge into those perceptions over the next few weeks. Dead ahead in the Center of Effort Challenge are pool-play duals against USC, Florida State and Long Beach, and the potential for a championship-round confrontation with TCU. Then next Thursday, the Lions will play duals against USC and host UCLA. Marymount in its history is winless against the Women of Troy in 24 duals.

“I am not as big of a long-term guy, if we can go 4-4, 6-2,” Mayer said. “We are 0-and-24 against SC and that’s who’s next, right in front of our face, so let’s look at that. 

“I believe we have the best chance we’ve ever had to beat them in a few days, so let’s prepare and get better for (USC). There’s the preparation, then we’ll get some feedback from how it went, and we’ll move on to the next one. It would be easy to get overwhelmed thinking about the next three weeks, but just to be great today. It’s (beneficial) that we are going to have all of these battles, and we’ll go into our conference tournament, hopefully, playing our best ball.”

Elsewhere on the schedule …  

The top team in the AVCA poll not playing in San Luis Obispo, LSU, will host the Tiger Beach Challenge in Baton Rouge on Friday and Saturday. It includes Stanford, North Florida, Nicholls State and Houston Christian. The Sun Devil Invitational in Tempe on Friday and Saturday will feature Grand Canyon, host Arizona State, Utah and NAIA program Park.

On Saturday and Sunday in Honolulu, No. 8 Hawaii, Georgia State and No. 20 Arizona will have a tri-meet during which each team plays the other twice. No. 13 Washington, Boise State, Oregon and Portland will gather Saturday and Sunday for the Husky Invitational in Seattle that will include pool play and playoff rounds with all four teams. California has a home dual on Friday against San Francisco and hits the road Saturday for one against Saint Mary’s.

Florida International on Friday will hold a tri-meet with No. 18 Stetson and St. Thomas in Miami, and then those three programs will travel to Boca Raton on Saturday to play in Florida Atlantic’s Battle of the Beach Burrow event. The Palmetto Invitational on Friday and Saturday sees South Carolina host Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston, Florida Gulf Coast and Jacksonville in Columbia.

UAB welcomes Tulane, Southern Miss, Central Arkansas to its Blazer Beach Bash on Saturday in Birmingham. New Orleans on Thursday and Friday will host the Privateer Beach Invitational, which includes Louisiana Monroe, Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin. The Govs Beach Bash at Austin Peay on Friday and Saturday also has Chattanooga and Jacksonville State.

Weekly honor roll

Conference pairs of the week included Dilara Gedikoglu and Kali Uhl of Arizona, Pac-12; Lara Boos and Ella Larkin of LSU, CCSA; Long Beach State’s Natalie Glenn and Megan Widener, Big West; Maddy Delmonte and Ayla Johnson of Georgia State, Sun Belt; Caroline Ferraris and Anete Namike of Stetson, Atlantic Sun (for the second time this season); Florida Atlantic’s Courtney Moon and Marketa Svozilova, Conference-USA; Tori Johnson and Jade Bennett of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Southland; and Dylan Mott and Logan Wallick of UT Martin, Ohio Valley.

College beach volleyball: Cal Poly’s Center of Effort; LMU’s foreign legion; what’s on tap Volleyballmag.com.

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