The Boise State beach volleyball season is pretty short.
Well. Kind of.
This year, the Broncos only had eleven official matches, all in the month of April. By that definition, a month-long season sure sounds short.
While short in the length of time and number of matches, here is the kicker: all of those matches were on the road. It included a brutal week and a half stretch where the Broncos visited California, went to compete at #5 Hawaii and back to the Golden State.
"Yes, it was a long time on the road," says Coach Shawn Garus, "but I thought it was a great opportunity for our team to grow."
The growing part of this venture is what is emphasized. This was the third year of beach volleyball at Boise State. In their inaugural year the squad only won four matches. Same for the second.
The team is trending up after the third year, however—winning five.
"It is a familiarity thing. The kids have confidence in their ability to play in the sand that they didn't have in years' past," according to Garus.
All of the players on the beach team are athletes that normally play on the court. Some of them are just learning the beach game from scratch. With that transition from the court to the beach come the glaring differences: communication, school, working with only one person versus five others. All of it adds to the challenge.
Junior Laney Hayes had never played beach volleyball before. So figuring out how to adjust to that other individual was the most difficult part. Where to go, how to set, trying to anticipate your partner's next move in conjunction with yours. All of it. With only one other person, being able to express yourself effectively is key.
"Because with five people you can let one person do [the communicating]," says Hayes, "with one other person, you have to be the one calling the shots." For Hayes it was realizing how awkward and uncomfortable it was working with one other person.
"You don't realize how quiet it is out there with just two people."
The Broncos had begun the season on April 3rd with some solid wins at the University of Oregon Tournament. There, the team downed the University of Portland, University of Oregon, and Stanford. The opening wins against two Pac-12 schools cannot be overstated for a team trying to gain confidence and gain some momentum.
The Broncos were 3-0 as they headed down to California for the first leg of their long stay away from home. To go on that long stretch, they had to go prepared. That meant getting the important stuff done first: school.
"We had to be really prepared for missing a whole week of school," says Sophomore Sierra Nobley, "so we were getting all our homework done in advance and projects taken care of. All you have to do is have a mindset that you're there to win."
While the Broncos have the studying part down, getting the wins turned out to be a bit of a struggle.
After winning four of their first five, they had only won one match of their last six (the Broncos did post several exhibition wins, but those don't count towards the NCAA record book).
The teams they played and lost to, though, were no slouches. According to Garus, "We try to schedule really tough as well so we played some really good teams and we're going to lose some of those matches but the big picture is we're just trying to get better at volleyball overall."
Those losses included teams that spend more time in the sand: Saint Mary's (Calif), Arizona State, California, no. 5 Hawaii, Pacific, and Cal Poly.
"A lot of really good teams," says Garus, "but it was great to have the time together for the group. We want our team to be a close-knit group so spending time on the road helps them learn more about each other."
It's that time together, that adversity, that helps the team grow. That growth and improvement can be seen in the individual positions.
For redshirt Sophomore Hannah Hubbard it means getting better, being able to show tangible results and avenging an earlier loss to Stanford's no. 1 pair of Hayley Hodson and Payton Chang.
"We came back from down pretty far in the second game," says Hubbard, "and I think that was our best match on the road and it was a very good win."
Sometimes improvements won't necessarily show in the win-loss column. The Broncos are just scratching the surface of what their potential could be. The tough schedule shows that they are willing to take lumps in order to improve. The commitment to school reflects dedication in making the important stuff the priority. The flexibility of the athletes themselves to adapt from the court to the sand provides opportunities to see success and engenders trust in each other.
In just the third year, Coach Garus has his squad going in the right direction in terms of familiarity and comfort level in the sand. With each individual pairing getting better, the next step is to get all those pairs to click at the same time. The Broncos are showing patience and fortitude. The next step are the wins.