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LSU, Westcliff win inaugural AVCA Fall Collegiate Beach Championships

The first-ever fall championships for beach volleyball brought 128 women from 45 schools and four men's teams to compete for a title.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Three days of college volleyball at John Hunt Park concluded on Sunday with champions crowned. Louisiana State’s pair Kylie DeBerg and Ellie Shank and Westcliff University won the inaugural American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Fall Collegiate Beach Championships.

The event was organized in a women’s duos and men’s team formats, with the 64 pairs of girls representing 45 schools played in pool play then a bracketed championship event. Four men’s teams played in three round-robin games before a tournament determined a champion.

DeBerg and Shank came into the event as the 15 seed but didn’t drop a set in pool play, earning them the No. 3 seed in the championship bracket. They would rattle off five match wins in a row and not lose a set until the second set of the championship match.

Their opponent, Texas Christian’s Sutton Mactavish and Ana Vergara was equally as dominant on their way to the finals, sweeping every opponent until their eventual last round.

The Tigers got out ahead in the finals quickly, visibly frustrating Vergara while jumping out to an early lead after keeping rallies short and getting friendly bounces out of bounds off the arms of their opponents. LSU won the first set 21-14.

TCU’s best moments came in the second set when Vergara lept and blocked two of DeBerg’s near-net hammer shots. At six-feet, four-inches, DeBerg can be an imposing figure defensively. Targeting a shot is hard enough, but with DeBerg’s reach, she effectively raises the net eight inches more where her hands are.

“We knew that they would come back in that second set,” said DeBerg. “They weren't just going to roll over; they were going to fight and we knew that it was going to be a long match. So just play our game.”

TCU took the second set in a competitive period, 21-19. Horned Frogs head coach Hector Gutierrez seemed visibly pleased with his team’s performance in the second set, smiling during side changes as opposed to the previous set’s swaps which included him delivering instructions and coaching while the trio walked to the other side of the sand.

LSU won the final round 15-11 in a convincing way. The Tigers pulled away early and didn’t lose the lead.

“They're really good at disguising what they're going to do,” Shank said of her opponents. “TCU is a great team who trains a lot like us to pitch perfect shots, and those are supposed to score. So it's just a matter of trying to make an extra play on one or two of them.”

What differentiated each team’s run to the finals is the average seed of their opponent. Each team played four games, but LSU faced an average seed of 15 (No. 30 Florida Gulf Coast, No. 14 South Carolina, No. 6 Georgia State and No. 10 Grand Canyon) while TCU took on an average seed of 25.25 (No. 40 Southern California B team, No. 24 Cal A team, No. 33 USC A team and No. 4 Washington A team).

As for the men, crowning a champion meant waiting until the very last possible moment. In a team format, schools play a best-of-five series of matches. Westcliff and Webber International split the first two, making the final match the decisive one. The previous four matches went in straight sets to each winner, but the battle between WIU’s Jackson Arnold and Ayden Keeter versus Dane Johnson and Jacob Titus of Westcliff not only went to three sets, but extra points were needed to win it all.

In a match that lasted over an hour, Westcliff’s Johnon/Titus pair won 18-21, 21-12, 19-17.

WIU coach Baylee Young said after the match that despite the result, her team put together a winning performance.

“Everything that we did today was exceptional and it was perfect and it was enough,” she said. “It just makes us hungrier for next season and it makes us hungrier for our season in the spring. And this isn't the first or the last time that we're going to face Westcliff, so they got it comin'."

Young, an Elkmont native and former volleyball player at Elkmont High, had a brief message for her folks back home.

“Look at me now,” she said, laughing.

Young was named interim head coach just three months into her tenure as a staffer at WIU. She is in her first year as a graduate student at the Babson Park, Fla. NAIA school.

The Fall Collegiate Beach Championships is set to return to John Hunt Park next year.

RELATED: Huntsville selected to host AVCA Fall Collegiate Beach Championships

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