Georgia State beach volleyball pursues first national championship

Georgia State beach volleyball players Kelly Dorn (left) and partner Elise Saga, named Pair of the Tournament for the Sun Belt Championship.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgia State

Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgia State

Georgia State beach volleyball players Kelly Dorn (left) and partner Elise Saga, named Pair of the Tournament for the Sun Belt Championship.

Georgia State’s beach volleyball program is playing for a national championship this weekend. The quiet powerhouse located in downtown Atlanta will face Southern California to begin the nationals Friday in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Some might be surprised that Georgia State has found such success in the sand, but that has been going for a long time now. This will be the program’s third NCAA championship appearance, following 2016 and 2022, when it finished among the final few.

The 2022-23 Sandy Panthers are no different. They are 20-16 and earned an automatic bid to the nationals after winning the inaugural Sun Belt Championships, taking four matches without losing a set, last weekend. It was GSU’s first season in the Sun Belt. The Sandy Panthers completed the country’s third-hardest schedule that featured 21 ranked opponents.

Under coach Beth Van Fleet, a GSU alum, this has become one of the more consistent programs in the country, despite it lacking the traditional advantages. The Sandy Panthers aren’t based by a coast. They aren’t a bigger school with grander financial resources.

Consider the 2022 championship bracket. As the field dwindled, Georgia State was surrounded by USC, UCLA, Florida State, Loyola Marymount (Los Angeles) and LSU.

“Every time we get to go to nationals, it’s like, ‘How do you do this in downtown Atlanta where there’s no ocean?’” Van Fleet said. “You just need the sand.” She praised their administration for fully supporting the program from the beginning. She also lauded the coaches and advisors who’ve helped create sustainability.

“And I don’t know, it’s kind of fun to defy odds,” Van Fleet said. “Like, nobody thinks you can do this in downtown Atlanta. Let’s do this in downtown Atlanta. And that’s been a really fun journey.”

Fifth-year senior Kelly Dorn, a Texas native, gave her recruiting pitch.

“I had my skepticism coming into a place where you’re never on the beach,” she said. “But I think it is just so cool. We have the coolest courts, in my opinion. They’re right in downtown. We have the Capitol above us. We have MARTA buses going around us. I think it’s just a really cool place to play. It’s cool, too, that we are kind of on our own. We’re not just one of the California schools on the coast or one of the Florida schools. We are so unique. And I think that aspect, it’s just been something that I’ve really enjoyed being at Georgia State.”

The Sandy Panthers even have a smaller roster, carrying 16 players, while many larger programs feature more than 20. That allows their entire roster to travel to each event, which Van Fleet believes helps their development.

“I think that’s part of the reason that we keep our roster smaller,” she said. “So across 16 people, everyone can share the same vision and the same goal. Obviously, we’ll have 16 different ways of approaching it because everybody’s unique and individual. … Everyone has value on this team. Everybody has a voice.”

Van Fleet took over the program before the 2013-14 season after serving different roles as an assistant since 2010 (with the indoor and beach teams). She now has overseen seven 20-plus-win seasons with GSU, including the 2022 campaign that featured a program-best 28 victories and fifth-place finish at the NCAA Tournament.

The Sandy Panthers have won at least 20 games in each season since 2016 (excluding 2020, shortened because of the pandemic).

“For me, this is my life project,” Van Fleet said. “Getting to come back to my alma mater and help build this program is like – I haven’t felt like I’ve worked today. It’s definitely been challenging, but I love the challenge. It’s really special. And I think the big picture of what we’ve been able to build is largely a reflection of the character of the people who come to the program. And so yeah, we’re not on the coast. Georgia is not a hotbed for beach volleyball. … But I think what is most exciting about it is being able to believe in something that’s a little bit different.”

Dorn added: “(Van Fleet) has meant everything. The main reason that I came to Georgia State was because of Beth. I always admire the team she had. You can tell the team has a great culture. I think throughout these years, I’ve grown in every aspect of my life. I think I’ve become a better beach volleyball player, for sure a better student, a better person. She just teaches us so much about outside of volleyball, just about life, about how to give back to others, about how to appreciate the little things. So many things that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”

The No. 14 Sandy Panthers will face No. 3 Southern California in Gulf Shores, Alabama, at 4 p.m. Friday (it will be televised on ESPNU). The Women of Troy are the two-time defending national champions. They’ve gone 101-15 under coach Dain Blanton across the past four years.

If the Sandy Panthers upset USC, they’ll face either No. 11 Hawaii (27-8) or No. 6 Loyola Marymount (28-8) as the 16-team tournament continues.

Georgia State is 0-5 all-time against Southern California. The Women of Troy won 4-1 in the program’s meeting April 1 in Manhattan Beach, California, though it was competitive. Four of the five flights required three sets.

“We’re very prepared to play those top teams,” Dorn said. “One of the things that Beth always teaches us (is) that you learn more from your losses in your wins. So I think with each great team that we’ve lost to, we’ve learned a lot and we’ve grown. I feel like we’re super prepared, especially for USC because we have played them. And we’ve learned what we need to do to beat them this time around.”