Last summer, Stetson University junior Kaley Melville was hand-selected by USA Volleyball as one of just a few local athletes to travel to the West Coast for elite training at the USA Beach High Performance camp. For about six weeks, Melville spent eight hours a day practicing and competing on the beautiful California beaches with and against some of the top sand players in the country.
"I was out there for a month and a half basically sleeping on someone’s couch, so it was definitely the beach volleyball life," Melville said. "It was just a blast."
In addition to training on courts adjacent to Misty-May Treanor, Melville said one of the most exciting moments was competing in a qualifier for the Jose Cuervo Pro Tour. Despite being one of the youngest pairings, Melville and her partner advanced past the first round against a team that had international experience.
"In the next round, it was kind of funny, it was a close game but we got beat out by two moms in their 30s," Melville said. "But just to see the amount of talent on the West Coast compared to the East Coast, it definitely gives you an idea of the level of competition out there. It really prepared me for what I want to accomplish in life."
Melville hopes her summer experience pays dividends this weekend as she and the Hatters compete for the 2013 Atlantic Sun Conference Sand Volleyball Championship in Jacksonville, Fla. The second-seeded Hatters will open the double elimination tournament against host Jacksonville at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Dolphin Beach Volleyball Courts.
The conference champion will earn an automatic bid to the AVCA National Tournament, May 3-5 in Gulf Shores, Ala.
"The team was thrilled to finish regular season strong, earning the no. 2 seed and some postseason awards," Stetson head coach Tim Loesch said. "However, our main focus is to win the A-Sun tournament. That is what the girls want most of all, and they are excited to play for it this weekend."
Stetson has already faced Jacksonville and the conference regular-season champion UNF a combined six times this season, but the Hatters will have a new look for their opponents in the tournament. After falling twice to UNF on April 3, Loesch decided to shuffle four the team's five pairings over the final few weeks of the regular season.
"I changed some of our partnerships a couple weeks ago to better match the skills and the chemistry of some of the pairs," Loesch said. "The players responded positively to the move and we have had good results versus Mercer and at the Fiesta Team Cup tournament. I believe that we will continue improving this weekend and win the A-Sun Championship."
Melville, who earned first team all-conference honors while paired with Julie Bassett, will be joined at the no. 1 position by Maren Rygh.
"The big thing with us is that we’re both big girls that can pass and put the ball down in the sand," Melville said about herself and Rygh. "When we come up against people that haven’t seen us before, they don’t know who to serve. It’s going to be an interesting weekend. None of the conference teams have seen us together besides Mercer."
Bassett will team with Claudia Kalin at the no. 2 position, and Savannah Byl will be paired with Katie DiGirolamo at the no. 3 seed.
"Julie and Claudia are extremely scrappy on defense," assistant coach Meghan Bryant said. "They touch everything. They have a really good bond because they are good friends, and they bring out the best in each other.
"Same thing with Savannah and Katie," Bryant continued. "They have a really good connection and they complement each other well. They are both positive players, they are easy-going, and they have good reactions. Savannah has got pretty good shots, and Katie can put the ball away when she needs to. Savannah is very good on defense so she can leave Katie up at the net to block."
The one pairing that has not changed for Stetson is first team all-conference duo Alisha Hoffman and Catherine Coston, who will play at the no. 4 spot this weekend. The pair went 13-7 overall in the regular season including a 7-1 mark in conference matches. Hoffman, who has been playing sand volleyball since she was five, and Coston, who just starting playing competively this year, complement each other well on the court.
"I think that (experience gap) has actually worked to our benefit," Hoffman said. "I’ve been able to help her out with my experience and she’s picked it up really well. She is a great offensive player, she has a really good swing and puts up a good block. I’ve been trained as a defensive player, so we’ve been able to connect really well."
The no. 5 spot will feature another new pairing as Jordann Dierickx will team with Erika White.
"It was interesting when we first changed, but I think the girls adjusted well," Bryant said about the line-up shuffle. "They are smart enough to know that, 'no matter who I am playing with, I control how I play.' I think that is a testament to how hard they have been working."
Stetson will be competing for the Atlantic Sun's automatic bid to the six-team national tournament. Even more is at stake for Hoffman, who is hoping to end her career on a high note.
"It’s a big weekend for me," Hoffman said. "I’ve been playing volleyball since I was five and this is kind of it for me. I’m done after this so to win this would be an incredible accomplishment."
For the latest updates during the tournament, fans can visit the Atlantic Sun Conference sand volleyball championship page, follow Stetson Volleyball on twitter, and/or sign-up for the Hat-Alerts text messaging service.