TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Things are a little different around the Florida State beach volleyball complex these days.
For starters, the sport has a new name. Or maybe it’s just returned to an old name. After four years of training fans to call it “sand volleyball,” it’s back to beach volleyball for the 2016 season.
Also new is the sport’s official recognition from the NCAA, which means participating teams will finally compete for an NCAA-sanctioned championship. Previous seasons ended in a tournament held by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
But the biggest change for this year’s Seminoles comes at the top, where Brooke Niles, a former beach volleyball All-American and 2012 Olympic alternate, takes over as the second coach in program history.
And to hear her players tell it, Niles has created a fresh, laidback vibe around the program.
“It’s just been a completely different dynamic out here this year,” said Nina Pelliterri, a senior who has been with the program since its second year.
“Beach volleyball is kind of a more laidback sport in general and it’s definitely felt that way this year, which I think is better for our program and better for all of us individually. It’s definitely more motivating, more exciting. So not laid back in a bad way. It’s definitely been a great change for us.”
Niles has competed – and succeeded – at every level of volleyball.
A California native, Niles starred as an indoor volleyball player at UC Santa Barbara and then split time as a coach and professional on the beach circuit.
She coaches with a professional-style approach that stresses the importance of personal responsibility.
“At the beginning of the year, we talked a lot about what the culture of this team is going to be from now on. And I think they have a lot of ownership of it,” Niles said. “Nobody can blame anybody else for the position they’re in. … I think when you push people really hard and push them to the point of exhaustion sometimes, and push them to the edge, then they come together as a team. And they appreciate the hard work.”
Niles also employs a hands-on style that may be unique to any Division I coach in the country, as she often participates with the team as they practice.
Pelliterri said she’s never had a coach practice alongside the team. But, so far, she’s a fan.
“This is something kind of new, but it’s awesome,” she said. “I mean, it’s one thing to hear something from someone, but to actually see them do it, it’s just so much easier.”
Despite the differences this year, the team’s expectations haven’t changed.
Although a young program, FSU has been a mainstay among the sport’s elite programs. The Seminoles have appeared in the AVCA Championships in each year of their existence, and, with two preseason all-conference selections (Pelliterri and Jace Pardon), expect to compete at a high level again this season.
That pedigree, along with FSU’s commitment to building a top-class program, attracted Niles to Tallahassee.
It also didn’t hurt that her husband, beach volleyball pro Nick Lucena, is an FSU graduate.
“The fact that the administration put so much money and time into beach volleyball being its own sport and not just a sport to get players to play indoor really struck a chord with me,” Niles said. “Because it’s been No. 1 in my life for a long time.”
The Seminoles, meanwhile, are ranked No. 5 in the AVCA preseason collegiate beach poll.
They begin the season this week in Tempe, Ariz., where they’ll face ranked opponents South Carolina and Grand Canyon.
It’s a difficult way to start the campaign, but after a grueling preseason, Niles said the Seminoles are ready to test themselves against a live opponent.
“I’m excited to see them play,” she said. “As long as we’re working on growing as individuals and as a team, we’ll come out better in the end and stronger.
“We have the talent to get there. Of course we have expectations, but we want to throw those out the window and just play.”