Matadors beach volleyball shines during senior day

Teammates Lauren Eknoian, 4, and Tasha Mae, 10, dive for the ball as Mae bumps it after receiving it from the University of San Francisco on Friday, March 31, 2023, at the CSUN Beach Volleyball Complex in Northridge, Calif.

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

Senior day came early for the women’s beach volleyball team this year. Four seniors, three of which plan to return next season, got to celebrate their time with the Matadors as they picked up two victories on the last day of March.

The matches against University of Saint Katherine and San Francisco were the first for CSUN since they lost five of six games at the Bigger West Invitational in San Luis Obispo. The Matadors shut out Saint Katherine, a team they played only twice before and defeated both times, and managed the same result against San Francisco, who was 1-18 heading into the match.

“It can be a little bit hard to try to come out and play after a weekend like that, but the girls came out super motivated, and sometimes, that’s what losing does,” associate head coach Ari Homayun said. “It’s a bit of a slap on the teeth and I think they came out a lot hungrier today.”

Between their matches, four of the Matadors’ seniors received gift baskets that included CSUN-branded sweaters and socks and a framed photo of the team. White and red roses were given out to the 13 seniors from the other three teams in town; the two the Matadors played and CSU Bakersfield. The four honored Matadors each got a full bouquet of roses and went to the middle of the sand court to take photos with each other and their families.

Three of the honored seniors took the court in the tri-dual Friday. Abbey Sweeting and Gabriela Griego, who are both planning to return, have paired up to go 15-9 on the season. They have won four straight matches since the Bigger West Invitational, including one against Concordia-Irvine, who beat three other Matadors pairs to win the match.

“Their communication with each other is amazing,” Homayun said about Sweeting and Griego. “The chemistry that they have going on, the way that they support and push each other. One player’s strength is another player’s weakness, so they can make up for a lot of what one person may be lacking, so they run a really good system.”

Sweeting said senior day gave her a chance to reflect on her time at CSUN and to be grateful for the opportunity to play for the Matadors. She plans to pursue a master’s at CSUN, with an end goal of obtaining a doctorate in pharmacy. Sweeting says the key to her success with Griego this season has been the duo’s ability to focus on each part of a rally piece by piece.

“Usually, we look back at our previous game and figure out what things we can fix,” Sweeting said. “We also look at some of the things that are in our control, like making every serve, or having good control of our passes or our setting. I think if we just focus on those three things, and if we can do those three, starting with an aggressive serve, and then if we’re receiving a good pass to be able to do a good set, that’s what we kind of focus on.”

The other senior who played in the tri-dual was Lauren Eknoian. She won both of her matches with junior Tasha Mae, but the pair needed a third set against San Francisco after dropping set one 21-19. Eknoian and Mae came back and won the next two sets by scores of 21-16 and 15-11.

“It’s just about never giving up on a set,” said Eknoian, who believes these victories show the team how good they can be. “Anything can happen at any point. I think both teams wanted it badly, so it was like, who wanted it more? I think just digging deep in those situations is what helped us pull through.”

Eknoian stepped up and made some huge plays in the third set of the match against San Francisco. The Dons led 9-8, and Eknoian hit two straight kills off the opponents’ arms out of bounds. Later, she made a one-handed diving save as the ball flew towards the sideline, scoring the point and giving the Matadors the momentum they needed to finish the match.

Eknoian is planning to use her extra year of eligibility and come back to CSUN next season. The last of the honored seniors, Darynne Bickers, will be the only one leaving. She did not play in the tri-dual.

Another highlight for the Matadors over the past weeks has been the play of graduate student Seyvion Waggoner and junior Mac McCarthy. Homayun split up Waggoner and McCarthy two weeks prior to this tri-dual, placing them with different partners for the team’s match against Texas on March 17. She kept them apart for seven games before putting them back together for the team’s March 26 matches against Sacramento State and Cal Poly. Before the split, the duo had a 6-4 record. Once they came back together, they won all five of their matches. Homayun separated them again for the team’s last match against Concordia.

“It took being away from each other to realize what each of them brought to the table,” Homayun said.

McCarthy emphasized Sweeting’s statement about the importance of focusing on oneself rather than the opponent.

“Doesn’t matter who’s on the other side. It’s what you can control on your side. Sometimes I can get too big, and I can’t control everything in the game, so just focus on what I can do,” McCarthy said. “I don’t make many adjustments, but I do just focus on stretching and hydrating.”

The Matadors have two doubleheaders left this season. Their final home games will be a doubleheader against Cal State LA on Thursday, April 13.

The dominant victories the Matadors earned after their tough losses at the Bigger West Invitational made Homayun optimistic that they can finish the season strong.

“We want to continue moving forward as a program and continuing putting teams behind us, and the only way that we can do that is by coming out, wanting to win and doing it in a dominant fashion,” Homayun said. “I think the best way to respect the game of volleyball is by playing your best volleyball every single match, even when you think you should be or you’re expected to be. You still got to come out and play your best volleyball and they did that today.”