Veteran-filled beach volleyball group ready to tackle the season

True McCullough and Emily Sparks celebrate during their match against Grand Canyon University at the CSUN Beach Volleyball Complex on Saturday, April 9, 2021, in Northridge, Calif.

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

The CSUN women’s beach volleyball program is entering its 10th season since its establishment in 2014. With 14 of 15 players on the roster having previously played at the college level, the veteran-filled group has the experience needed to take the team to the next level.

John Price, the director of women’s volleyball, returns for his second year at the helm after previously coaching the men’s and women’s volleyball programs at CSUN. Ari Homayun, who is entering her first season as associate head coach, will take care of most of the coaching on the sidelines.

The Matadors finished 17-17 last season, a step up from their 11-15 record the year before. They found themselves right in the middle of the Big West Conference standings in 2022, three teams flanking them from the top and bottom.

“I was lucky to have a great group of girls to work with,” Homayun said. “I think we tried to foster a more competitive environment [than] the girls have experienced in the past. The fact that they all bought into it was a huge factor in their success.”

Going winless in their nine matches against nationally ranked opponents last season, the Matadors have yet to achieve a victory against a top 20 opponent in their brief nine-year history. This has been an issue in every season of the team’s existence, sometimes being the difference between the Matadors finishing with a positive record or falling below .500.

The closest the Matadors came to beating a ranked opponent last season was a 3-2 loss to No. 20 CSU Bakersfield in the second leg of a doubleheader. The Matadors forced a third set in four of the games, but were able to secure only two victories in the match.

To overcome this achilles heel, the Matadors’ strategy will be to win close games and close out matches that are anyone’s for the taking.

“I think there were a few matches that we saw last year that were close, and we lost a few close ones, we lost to a few teams that we shouldn’t have, but I think that the next step is seeing if we can beat those teams and continue to start knocking off teams that are ranked above us,” Homayun said. “We’ve continued to fine-tune our skillset here. We worked really hard this fall to get a ton of reps so that these girls can be super fine-tuned coming into the spring.”

Of the 15 players on the team, only one is a freshman, but three are juniors who have just transferred in from community colleges and one is a redshirt junior who transferred in last year but redshirted her first season.

Kinley Lindhardt, the sole freshman, is the all-time leader in kills for the indoor volleyball team at Frederick High School and was named to the second team all-state in Colorado.

Three of the players on the team — Jadin Williams, Emily Sparks and Layla Cederlind — also have experience playing on the hardwood for the Matadors as part of the indoor women’s volleyball team.

“When you’re playing indoor, you have to be able to play with five other people at once, versus on the beach, you just have to play with your partner, and I feel like it’s much more of an intimate sport because you get to learn the ins and outs of the partner you’re playing with,” Sparks said. “On the beach side, our team can be much closer because you’re with your partner, but then there’s four other teams that you’re cheering for as well.”

Sparks played with Lauren Eknoian in most of the matches last season. The duo tied for third on the Matadors with 13 pairs wins and held a record of 13-19, but Homayun is exploring various options to pair players depending on how they fit together. The experience this group has playing with one another gives them some flexibility in that regard.

“I can always rely on the fact that they did play well together last year, and I know that they would play well together if I paired them up again,” Homayun said. “But for the overall success of the team right now, I think the best possible way to get a school win is to have them on separate teams.”

Sparks and Eknoian both cited intangibles as things they will focus on improving throughout the season, such as pushing through tough games, picking their partners up and keeping their composure under pressure.

The qualification process for the NCAA tournament will undergo some changes this year, most notably with regards to the selection committee no longer being required to choose a certain number of teams from each region. Now, the committee will select 16 teams on a national basis.

Last season, only two of the seven Big West schools made the 16-team tournament, those being Cal Poly and Hawaii. The new format opens the door for more schools to qualify. With this new format, the Matadors will look to defeat ranked teams to work their way up onto the lists of the selection committee, starting with their first match of the season against sixth-ranked Grand Canyon University.

“It’s exciting, knowing that we have a better opportunity, and I think we will take games we play against Hawaii, for example, or GCU, a lot more seriously,” Eknoian said. “I also think that it shows us where we stand, and our chances of making the NCAA tournament, so I think that it’ll push us to fight harder.”

The Matadors started their 2023 campaign with matches against Grand Canyon and Concordia on Thursday, and split them, losing 5-0 to GCU before redeeming themselves against the Golden Eagles. They will continue their season playing eight games in six days from March 3-8, and will host the first seven of them.