FIU’s newest student-athletes hit the sand

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A light breeze swirled and tropical beach music played in the background as Kate Stepanova and Emily Podschweit played a casual match at the new FIU sand volleyball courts.

Not too shabby a way to go through college – playing sand volleyball.

By Pete Pelegrin | Photos by Josh Ritchie

The brand that Podschweit, Stepanova and the rest of the inaugural FIU sand volleyball team will play this spring is a far cry from the bikinis and golden tans that some might have envisioned. For starters, when the NCAA established it as a collegiate sport last year, modest clothing was regulated. And, as the world discovered during the Olympics (when it was called “beach volleyball”), this is a fast-moving sport that demands high endurance. Unlike indoor volleyball, which has each team sending six players onto the court, sand volleyball is a killer two-on-two game.

The sport captured international headlines during the 2012 Summer Olympics when Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won a third straight gold medal for the United States, and there’s buzz at FIU.

“A lot of people tell me it’s a great sport. It’s in the Olympics,” Podschweit said. “For the most part, when people find out about beach volleyball at FIU, they’re excited to see what it’s all about.”Sand Volleyball

When FIU officially starts its first season in March, the Panthers’ five doubles teams will be led by Rita Buck-Crockett, a two-time Olympian and 2011 Volleyball Hall of Fame inductee.

“We have everything,” Buck-Crockett said. “We’ve got small players that are really crafty. We got big players that can bang the ball, and then we have players that can do both.”

A key asset the Panthers have going into the first season is three-time All-American Stepanova, an FIU graduate student originally from Latvia. Also a seasoned indoor player, she brings a wealth of experience, including competitive play in the first-ever NCAA sand volleyball Final Four last year when she was an FSU undergrad.

“I felt I had an advantage when I got here because I had already played a year of sand volleyball,” Stepanova said. “With that extra year you learn how teams play and what I need to improve on.”

None of that is lost on Stepanova’s teammates.

“She is amazing. I have learned so much from her,” Podschweit said. “Personally, I like playing against her more because that makes my defense better. She knows exactly where the defender is going every time she puts the ball away. So I’ve made it a point before I go up to swing to look across the court to see where the defenders are.”

The Panthers will play most home matches at new courts on the Modesto A. Maidique Campus, and FIU will also host some “home” tournaments on South Beach.

“South Beach is huge,” Stepanova said. “People are going to be there and see there is sand volleyball at FIU. So we’re excited.”  

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