Beach Volleyball Moves to Campus

The 2023 beach volleyball team during one of their first practices on LMU’s new courts outside the Burns Recreation Center.

For the past several years, the LMU beach volleyball program has established a national reputation as one of the premier teams in the United States while competing with no true home-court advantage.

No more.

LMU’s new on-campus beach volleyball courts debut March 11–12 in the inaugural matches with Stanford, Florida Atlantic University, Concordia University and Grand Canyon University. Four courts, viewable from Loyola Boulevard, are located on the west side of the Burns Recreation Center. Until now, the team practiced at Dockweiler State Beach and played home matches at Ocean Park Courts in Santa Monica. The courts also will serve as a community resource: They’ll be available not only for the team’s competitions and practice, but also for camps, clinics and student use.

The courts are a significant asset for a program that has achieved remarkable success: three consecutive WCC championship titles, two deep runs in the NCAA tournament including a third-place finish in 2022, three consecutive WCC Coach of the Year awards for Head Coach John Mayer, and multiple player All-American selections. We interviewed Mayer about the impact of the new facility on his team and program. Mayer was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

Beach volleyball seems to be growing in popularity. Are you counting on the new courts to draw fans in large numbers?

I think courts on campus will draw people in. I hope people are excited about our team already, and that there’s some curiosity and excitement. Beach volleyball is a very fan-friendly event: beach atmosphere, it’s played outside, you can get up close in the action — you’re not up in nosebleed seats trying to watch. You’re so close you can hear the players talking to each other. We want to create an environment in which you feel you’re part of the action. And we hope we have a home-court advantage.

What about this excites your players the most?

To them, it feels like Christmas morning. There’s a lot of excitement. From a practical standpoint, the idea of waking up, leaving the dorm and walking to practice is appealing. Before, when we played at the beach, we had to get the van, load up the van, drive to the beach, unload the van, set up the courts. I think they’re also excited about fellow students seeing them practice, seeing them compete. The sense of being part of the community is a big part of the excitement.

How will on-campus courts affect recruiting? To a premier high school player in Oklahoma, coming to LMU to play on the beach next to the Pacific Ocean must be pretty attractive. Would a prospect from the mid-West be more attracted to the opportunity to play on the beach in California than playing on a campus court?

We’ll go to the beach once a week or more. That’s still an appealing thing that LMU offers. But a lot of high school players in Florida or Texas, for example, haven’t played on a college campus. To play on a college campus in this environment is special. My hope is that they’ll see this as the best of both worlds.

Does leaving the beach and playing on the campus give you better environmental conditions and predictability?

Yes. The environment is a huge part of our sport. The best beach players know how to use the environment, whether it’s location of the sun or wind direction. You only get better with that experience. We’ll get a different sort of wind at the campus courts. It will bounce off the buildings nearby, giving us a swirling sort of wind. On days of high wind, or gale-force winds it’s silly to go to the beach, because the conditions are unplayable. On rainy days, there’s nowhere to shelter at the beach. Whereas on campus, we can go inside and wait out bad weather. We’ll have more adaptability with the campus courts.

In other sports, if you’re among the very, very best high school players, you’re asking yourself, “Should I go to one of the top five programs in the country?” Your team finished No. 3 last season. Are the top players asking themselves if they should go to LMU?

More so than they were five years ago. In the most recent two or three recruiting cycles, we’re in the conversation with blue-chip prospects. We’re getting more looks, more interest. The top colleges still have a lot of success and we want to be better at it. But our ranking helps. Areas in which we’ve had the most success is recruiting international players and transfer players. We have to prove that year in and year out we’re in the national championship conversation, and that will change things such that we can land more and more of the top players. 

With the courts located in front of Gersten Pavilion, beach volleyball will now have the most visible competition venue on the entire campus. That will help draw fans, but will opponents be more able to scout you and your strategies?

I hope so. Bring it on. We don’t have anything to hide, and we want to play our opponents at their best, to challenge us.

In spring 2022, the beach volleyball team achieved fantastic success — third place in the NCAA tournament and a No. 3 ranking. What are the challenges are you putting before your players this season?

The main challenge is that this is a new year. Just because we were good last year, doesn’t mean we will be good this year. We lost six starters, but we don’t spend time talking about that. What we do spend time talking about is what are our values, what do we want to be about, what do we want to stand for. If we’re being good teammates and living our core values, the results will become what they become. When you put together years of success, there are standards of excellence that the players know are part of the program. I hope the standards push them to be the best that they can become, not to be better than a team in the past. That can be unhealthy. If you get into the comparison game, you end up playing in fear.

What do you mean by “core values”?

The team is made up of partnerships, two-person mini-teams within the team. With 18 players, there are nine different teams. Each team works on hard work, industriousness, communication — “soft skills” that are not soft but very important. Then there are overall team values: who we want to be. I ask them, “At the end of the year if you heard people talk about the team, how do you want them to describe you?” It wouldn’t be “I killed this many balls and won this many matches.” Instead, I want them to say, “We played with a lot of joy, that we brought the best out of our teammates.” Those become the team values. When we show up at a championship match, we’re less concerned about who is on the other side of the net. But we’re clear on who we want to be: a great teammate, a learner, a hard-worker. Sometimes there are players who view the scoreboard to decide how they’re going to compete. Their shoulders are down, or they point fingers at their teammates. What really defines people is how they get through adversity: Can you show up? Can you stand up for what you believe in? That’s how we challenge our players: We hope we face adversity, we hope other teams scout us. 

When the courts were built during the past few weeks, many trucks rolled into campus filled with sand. I have to wonder: Are we going to be able to keep small creatures out of the sand, like cats for example?

I bet some cats will find them.