TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The phrase “National Championship” is something the Florida State beach volleyball team isn’t afraid to throw around this season. After coming so close to the championship for the second year in a row and taking home another conference title in 2017, the Seminoles have upped the pressure and set their sights on the 2018 National Championship.
“It’s something we want to remind ourselves every day to work for,” head coach Brooke Niles said. “They’ve shown a lot of discipline in practice and they definitely have that goal on their minds.”
In just two seasons at the helm, Niles has set a number of records and coached some of the best teams the program has ever seen, but she isn’t even close to being done. Although the team is looking forward to its ultimate goal of claiming the championship, right now the Seminoles are just looking forward to getting the season started.
“They’re just ready to compete,” Niles said. “We have one of the longest off-seasons of any sport, so by the time preseason training is over and we compete in our first scrimmage it’s been five and a half weeks. So I think they’re just ready to test themselves against competition and really get the season going.”
Expectations remain high for the team heading into the 2018 season, as the Seminoles will see a challenging schedule to prepare for what they hope is a deep postseason run.
Florida State opens the season in DeLand, Fla., at the Stetson Spring Fling, where it will face the hosting Hatters and three CCSA opponents – Florida Atlantic, South Carolina and Georgia State.
The Seminoles then return home for the earliest home event the team has ever seen, hosting St. Petersburg College, Stetson and conference opponent College of Charleston in the Hampton Inn Capitol-University Invitational.
The challenging schedule takes FSU out to Southern California for the East Meets West Challenge, where the team will face the four other top-5 opponents – Hawaii, Pepperdine, UCLA and USC. The Seminoles stay in California to take on Pepperdine again, along with Long Beach State and LMU in a set of midweek matches.
The Seminoles will then stay in Florida for the Hickory Point Lake Bash in Tavares and a Garnet and Gold scrimmage at home on March 24, before heading south for FIU’s Surf & Turf Invitational in South Beach Miami.
FSU will then host its third and final home event of the season, taking on FAU, UNC Wilmington, TCU, UAB and Georgia State in the Seminole Beach Battle in April. The regular season will conclude in Baton Rouge at LSU’s Battle on the Bayou, where the Noles will see conference opponents Georgia State and LSU, along with Jacksonville State and New Orleans before heading into the postseason.
Niles will return 14 letterwinners this season, as well as six of the nation’s top recruits and one indoor graduate transfer. Another major addition for the Seminoles this season is Volunteer Assistant Coach Nick Lucena.
Lucena returns to his alma mater in the midst of a highly successful career on the professional circuit. Since graduating from FSU in 2003, Lucena has picked up 17 overall first place finishes, including nine AVP gold medals and eight international titles. Alongside partner Phil Dalhausser, the duo finished fifth in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
“It’s kind of surreal having an Olympian on the court with you,” said sophomore Francesca Goncalves. “He sees things that other people just don’t see, and his input is very honest. He will just tell you how it is. We need that honesty is this game because we need to fix our weaknesses, and I think he is here to take us to the next level.”
On the courts, the Seminoles will look to seniors Vanessa Freire and Tory Paranagua to lead the team this season, after the duo clinched the 2017 CCSA Championship match and claimed the CCSA Tournament MVP title as a pair. Paranagua led the team with a 30-8 record last season, giving her an 84-21 career record – the eighth-most in program history. Freire sits right behind her classmate with a 29-5 record n 2017 – the second-most on the team – and a 77-20 career record, which is good for the ninth-most in program history.
Although the seniors will be expected to lead the team, an outstanding season from junior Brooke Kuhlman earns her a spot at the top of the lineup. Kuhlman became FSU’s eighth AVCA All-American last season after going 18-11 with partner Leigh Andrew. The two defeated 18 ranked opponents and recorded the match point in FSU’s first win over Pepperdine. Her successful sophomore season also landed her a DiG Magazine All-American honor and a spot on the All-CCSA First Team.
Returning for her sophomore season is FSU’s 2017 breakout star – Francesca Goncalves. In her freshman campaign, Goncalves picked up 29 wins on her way to becoming the CCSA Freshman of the Year, the DiG Magazine Freshman of the Year, as well as earing a DiG Magazine All-American honor and a spot on the CCSA All-Tournament Team. Her 29-7 record was good for the second-most on the team and the 16th-most by an individual in a single season.
“We’re definitely going to rely on our experience this year,” Niles said. “But we also have a crop of really athletic freshmen that came in. So we’re going to try to combine the two and see where that takes us.”
While all six freshmen this season are bound to make an impact for the Noles on the sand, one local name stands out the most – Tallahassee’s own Madison Fitzpatrick. Her success as both an athlete and a student earned Fitzpatrick Lincoln High School’s Trojan of the Year award and the Wendy’s Heisman award in 2017, and shortly after graduation she was named an AVCA High School Beach All-American.
“In the past we’ve had a lot of great experience on this team, and this program is a top team for a reason,” Niles said. “Part of that is what we do on the recruiting side and then how we train them as athletes when they’re here. I’m just excited to put all these tools together.”
Also stepping onto the sand for the first time this season for the Seminoles will be redshirt sophomore Sara Putt and graduate transfer Lauren Anderson. A transfer from Stetson, Putt became an AVCA All-American as a freshman in 2016, going 32-3 at the No. 1 position to claim the Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year honor. Anderson comes to the Seminoles after a four-year indoor career at Utah State and Pittsburgh. She finished her senior campaign ranked nationally in six major statistical categories and set a number of USU records.
With some of the most talent the program has seen on one roster, FSU is hoping to finalize its starting lineup this Saturday, February 17 at the Garnet and Gold scrimmage in Jacksonville Beach. The Seminoles play on the sand in between 6th and 7th Ave. North, and first serve is set for noon.
After enduring a long off-season and training harder than they ever have before, the team is eager to get back in the sand and start competing. Although it is important to focus on each opponent individually, the team has no plans to stop talking about that National Championship title.
“We have a certain standard we hold ourselves up to,” Niles said. “I think other programs are different in that they just want to get someplace or get a certain amount of wins. We know what we’re capable of, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with voicing those opinions.”