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Beach Volleyball: Bollinger, Weaver helping new Stevenson program get back to square one

When Stevenson announced it would become the first Division III school to participate in beach volleyball a year ago, Sara Bollinger wasn't quite sure how much she would enjoy it. Bollinger had spent a decorated career at Winters Mill honing her indoor volleyball skills, and now in the transition to beach volleyball, she had to learn a completely new sport.

She was starting back at square one.

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But during Stevenson's inaugural matches in Florida over the past two weeks, the bitter taste Bollinger had after indoor losses returned as she and her partner, Lauren Weaver, walked off the sand after a loss.

In the Mustangs' first season of competition, one that features the team playing a host of superior Division I and II teams, they really are starting back from square one as a fledgling program. But under coach Dave Trumbo, they're confident that they'll continue to acclimate to the game and lay a foundation for the program to come.

"At first, it started out a little rocky," Bollinger said. "Now you can just tell we're getting way more comfortable with playing and having the competition and just really fueling our fire. It's been really good. It's fun. Definitely a learning experience especially because we're a D-III team and we're playing D-I and D-II. It's high-level competition. It's not easy, and you can't just kick butt right off the bat. You've got to learn."

Stevenson's announcement thrusted it into one of the country's fastest growing college sports. According to the American Volleyball Coaches Association, 69 schools from Division I to the NAIA have beach volleyball teams this season. That number could more than double by 2022, according to a survey conducted by the AVCA in September.

There are growing pains for the team. Stevenson is in the process of building beach volleyball courts, but the Mustangs had to travel an hour south to Virginia to get time in the sand. Normally, they practice in the gym with the net a little higher than it would be for indoor volleyball because it's harder to jump in the sand. And because of the lack of Division III squads — Principia College in Illinois, UC Santa Cruz and Rutgers-Newark are listed by the AVCA— Stevenson's schedule is chock full of Division I and Division II teams.

So the Mustangs faced off with Florida Gulf Coast University on March 15, and they'll participate in a tournament at UNC-Wilmington next weekend. But despite the difficulties they face — they won only one game out of 20 in their first four matches — the Mustangs are relishing the experience.

On March 18, the Mustangs came close to a breakthrough. Stevenson lost its match to Warner, 3-2, and the pair of Bollinger and Weaver won its first game of the season in three sets. They won the program's first ever match the next day, a 3-0 victory St. Thomas which featured another win from the duo of Bollinger and Weaver.

"It is kind of funny to get out there and play with them and play at their level," said Weaver, who starred at South Carroll. "They completely underestimate us, and then we come out and play well, even take a set from them or something like that. They'll get frustrated that we're having fun while we're doing this because they look at it like we shouldn't be doing this."

Trumbo, who led Liberty to two state championships and nine county titles during his time there, has helped Stevenson's indoor team to five straight NCAA tournament appearances. But like it was for most of his players, beach volleyball was new to him. So he's made connections throughout the coaching community to get advice on different coaching techniques and strategies.

But there's still been new challenges for him to overcome.

While Trumbo can manipulate substitutions with players who have specialized roles in indoor volleyball, he called beach volleyball a more "player-driven" game. There will be multiple pairings playing on different courts at the same time, and he can't coach unless it's during a timeout. It's up to the Mustangs to determine when to call timeouts at different junctions.

He's also had to juggle the pairings to figure out who not only plays well together but who can also have the right chemistry on the court. The players are essentially on an island with only each other during games, so they have to be able to get along.

"The girls play expecting to win," Trumbo said. "To change that mindset that we're looking to improve, they're absolutely trying to win, but they know the competition is very difficult. We're looking for improvement. We're looking for the mental toughness, that both partners continue to talk to each other."

Bollinger and Weaver, who were back-to-back Times Players of the Year in 2012 and 2013, respectively, didn't know each other off the court before college, but they've meshed together in the sand. Bollinger said Weaver is "hilarious" and keeps things light on the sand, and Weaver brings the mindset of playing with a "chip on [her] shoulder."

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Both Bollinger and Weaver know they're part of something new, and despite the growing pains, they will have helped put Stevenson in a prime position for success when the Division III ranks expand.

For now, they're enjoying their inaugural ride as underdogs.

"Nobody expected us to win," Bollinger said. "Definitely the D-I and D-II schools, like they overlook us. They're like, 'Oh, they're DIII and it's the first year, they're not going to win anything, they're going to be terrible.' Well guess what, we're not doing as bad as you really think."

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