Andrew Fuller has been involved in college women’s beach volleyball since the first program, Long Beach State, was established in 2012. He was also integral in starting USC’s program, which has since developed into a national powerhouse. So when Fuller made his way back to the Bay Area before the 2017 season to coach Stanford beach volleyball, which was still in its infancy, expectations were high. And build the Stanford program he did: with two straight NCAA Championship tournament appearances under their belt, the Cardinal have only been improving each year and could soon make their way into conversations about being the best program in the nation.
In the program’s tenth year, the Cardinal won 24 games — improving on last year’s single-season record for games won — and qualified for their second straight NCAA tournament in 2022. Although the team did not win a game in the tournament, qualifying for the second consecutive year was an accomplishment itself, especially given that the team is the newest at Stanford.
The list of individual accomplishments is long as well: sophomores Kate Reilly and Maya Harvey set a single-season record for most individual games won; Reilly and sophomore Xolani Hodel set a record for most career wins as a pair; and the Cardinal tied their program record for most postseason conference honorees with five. Reilly said that though expectations may have been higher this season, “I thought we could have done a little more, but overall, looking back on it, I think we have a lot of work to be proud of.”
“In the grand scope of things, I’d say we had a more successful season than we’ve probably ever had before,” senior Charlie Ekstrom added. “I think that it ended on a little bit more sour of a note than we might have wanted just because of the fact that we’ve gotten kind of that taste of being at the very, very top of competition.”
Perhaps even more impressive than the Cardinal’s success in the 2022 season is the fact that the their 2021 season was so successful, as well. After the majority of the 2020 season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the beach volleyball players were scattered around the United States with no team to train with. The Stanford athletes returned to campus in 2021, just in time for a three-week preseason. The team’s preseason is normally 16 weeks — so not only were the Cardinal athletes coming back from nearly a year of training alone, but they were also expected to jump back into competition with less than 20% of their normal preseason.
“Our teams did an amazing job of preparing on their own to be ready for the season,” Fuller said. “It’s really a testament to their work ethic and determination to be ready on their own without any real coaching from the Stanford staff.”
While team practices didn’t resume until the spring of 2021, Reilly, who is from Manhattan Beach, Calif., said many of her teammates were also staying in Southern California and sometimes met up to train together. Despite the distance leading up to the 2021 season, the team came together to set a school record for total wins in a single season with 23 and qualify for its first-ever NCAA Championship tournament.
Fuller attributes a large part of the team’s recent success, especially over the last two years, to recruiting.
“I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the national team system, that program, for a long time and been able to just be around the highest levels of the junior game,” Fuller explained. Six athletes currently on Stanford’s roster have been affiliated with the USA Volleyball development programs or the National Team at some point before coming to the Farm, according to roster information available on GoStanford.
Ekstrom said that the number of athletes on the team has grown significantly since her first year in 2018, and while talent has also grown, the fact that the team does not rely on indoor volleyball players to play beach volleyball in the spring has made a significant difference.
When Ekstrom first came to Stanford, the team included 10 beach-only athletes during the season, and three indoor volleyball players to round out the lineup — but by the end of the season, the team only had 10 healthy players between beach-only athletes and the ones who also played indoor volleyball in the fall. Now, the team has 18 players, all of whom only play beach volleyball.
“For the first time ever, we had more than one person not traveling,” Ekstrom said. “The depth of our team has just grown so exponentially over the last four years. It’s jaw-dropping actually looking back on it.”
Reilly said that as the team’s depth has increased and the program has become more well-established, team culture has shifted. She said there is now “more buy-in and we’re trying to push each other to get better and better.”
As a four-year starter and two-time All-American, Ekstrom has played a significant role in shifting team culture. The team had a losing record in her first season in 2019, as it struggled with depth and keeping enough players healthy.
“We were unranked at the end of my freshman year, and we didn’t come in unranked, but it was a tough season,” she said. “It was one of those rude awakenings.”
“I know my class,” she added. “When we met before the season started, we were so excited to get back to campus to be with everybody just because of the fact that we were so excited to be as bought-in as we were and to work to inspire and work with the underclassmen.”
Increased team buy-in has made Fuller’s job as head coach easier as well. He described his coaching philosophy as “let’s see what we have and then try and support it and maximize it.”
But despite all the things that have gone well for Stanford over the last several seasons, each year has not been without significant challenges. The beach volleyball team has not been immune to the mental health challenges that countless athletes have faced. Fuller said the most challenging thing that he has faced at Stanford, outside of the difficulties of recruiting, has been Stanford’s culture of “doing too much,” which can negatively impact his athletes.
In an effort to combat the overwhelmingness that can easily characterize daily life on the Farm, Fuller brought in Professor Fred Luskin to speak with the team every Tuesday throughout the 2022 season. Luskin is a lecturer at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. He regularly gives talks on the importance of emotional intelligence and managing stress.
While Luskin is not a medical professional, such as the psychiatrists that students can see at CAPS or Stanford Sports Psychology, Ekstrom said that through activities like guided meditation, Luskin helped the team “put things in perspective.”
“He was giving us really solid perspectives, or really solid opportunities to find happiness or find serenity or find joy in very, very little tangible things,” she continued. “It was more of shifting the framework of your mind into great gratitude or appreciation.”
Reilly summed it up by saying “[Luskin] was pretty big” and that the mood for Tuesday’s practice was always different, in a positive way. She said her teammates were “more willing to let go of results or be less self-critical” and that his discussions always brought the team closer together.
The team will now turn its attention to building on the positives from this season, as the relatively young team goes into next season with another year of NCAA tournament experience under its belt and three seniors — Ekstrom, Maddie Dailey and Jordan McKinney — planning to return to complete co-terminal master’s degrees next year.
Fuller said this year’s team was around 50-60% underclassmen, as 12 of 18 athletes on the roster were in their first or second year in 2022, according to the roster on GoStanford. Fuller, Ekstrom and Reilly also all pointed out that the beach volleyball program is bringing in a phenomenal recruiting class next year, highlighted by players like Ashley Vincent, Line Andersson and Kelly Berardi.
As for the team’s goals, the Cardinal have progressed from aiming to qualify for the NCAA Championship to hoping to win games at the tournament and bring a national title back to the Farm — a testament to the enormous amounts of growth the team has experienced over the last several years. Reilly also said the only two Pac-12 schools that Stanford has not yet beaten are UCLA and USC, two powerhouse programs from Southern California that have a combined six Pac-12 Championship titles, six national championship title game appearances and six national titles between them. She said another one of the Cardinal’s goals is to defeat those programs.
For now, the athletes have the summer to continue training and will kick off their season eight months from now, in February 2023.
“I think this is just the beginning,” Fuller said. “We’re nowhere near how good we’re going to be.”