GULF SHORES, Ala. - When Jekaterina Stepanova enrolled at Florida State to play indoor volleyball two years ago she probably didn't envision playing in a Final Four.
On Friday, the senior from Riga, Latvia, will play in her second Final Four in six months. Stepanova led the Garnet and Gold indoor volleyball to their first NCAA Indoor Final Four in December.
This weekend she can make more history on the beaches of Gulf Shores, Ala., as the Seminoles are the No. 2 seed in the nation's first-ever Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships.
"This is what we've worked all year for," Stepanova said. "This is it - especially for me, I'm a senior. Coming from as far away as I came, It's a dream to accomplish all of this here at Florida State. I got to play in two Final Fours. It's perfect."
Stepanova and freshman Jace Pardon are the No. 5 seed in the 16-team pairs championship portion of the National Championships. The duo will join their teammates, first-seeded Aurora Newgard, a junior, and sophomore Brittany Tiegs, in Friday's pairs pool play beginning at 11 a.m. CT. Friday's pool play will determine Sunday's single elimination pairs tournament on Sunday, starting at 8 a.m. CT.
The team championship will be contested on Saturday. The four-team, double-elimination tournament will begin at 11 a.m. CT with No. 1 seed Pepperdine facing No. 4 seed College of Charleston. No. 2 seed Florida State will take on No. 3 seed Long Beach State at 12 p.m. CT. The team championship match to crown the nation's first-ever collegiate champion is scheduled for 5 p.m. CT.
Head Coach Danalee Corso, who has guided the Seminoles to an undefeated 15-0 dual match mark this season, hopes the teams of Newgard and Tiegs and Stepanova and Pardon will give FSU some momentum heading into the team championship following Friday's pool play.
"I feel like we have two No. 1 teams that are very strong," Corso said. "Either one could win this whole thing. Obviously, they set the tone for the entire team. If they play well, then the whole team will come in on Saturday feeling confident. If they don't, I think we have enough depth and maturity to pick it up. We will get a boost somewhere. I've talked all year about sustaining our level until the end, and I think we've done that.
"We're not going to lose because we are not prepared. I've said that all week. We can win a national championship if we play up to our abilities - we don't even have to play perfect, we just have to play well."
Joining FSU's two tandems in the team championship are the No. 3 duo of graduate student Caitlin Haworth and senior Mallory Kiley, the No. 4 pair of senior Visnja Djurdjevic and freshman Stephanie Pellitteri, and the No. 5 squad of junior Fatma Yildirm and sophomore Jeassica McGregor. Freshman Sarah Wickstrom could also see action.
Saturday's team championship will feature all five courts playing at the same time in each match. The winning team must win three of the five competitions to capture the match.
On Thursday, the Seminoles got a second practice in right along the Gulf of Mexico's sandy beaches. FSU's No. 1 (Newgard and Tiegs) and No. 2 (Stepanova and Pardon) teams took it easy since they will play Friday, while the rest of the squad worked hard for nearly three hours.
One of Corso's first beach volleyball pupils, former USA national team member and No. 4-ranked player in the world, Tyra Turner, also came and spoke to the team.
"I feel great about how our team is playing," Corso said. "They practiced awesome yesterday and today. I feel really good about our chances this weekend."
For more information on the Florida State sand volleyball team, follow the Seminoles on Twitter at: @FSU_SVB.
FSU's National Championship Schedule Friday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. CT Pairs Championship Pool Play (times approximate) 11 a.m. -- Pool A No. 1 Aurora Newgard/Brittany Tiegs vs. Pool A No. 3 Hampton/Cabrajac (LBS) 12 p.m. -- Pool D No. 2 Kate Stepanova/Jace Pardon vs. Pool D No. 4 Medina/Strack (UNF) 1 p.m. -- A No. 1 Newgard/Tiegs vs. A No. 4 Shelton/Kolich (Coll. of Charleston) 2 p.m. -- D No. 2 Stepanova/Pardon vs. D No. 3 Stoltzman/Harong (Hawaii) 4 p.m. -- A No. 1 Newgard/Tiegs vs. A No. 2 Croson/Lee (Hawaii) 4 p.m. -- D No. 2 Stepanova/Pardon vs. D No. 1 Urango/Shaw (USC)
Saturday 11 a.m. CT Double Elimination Team Championship Match 1 11 a.m. -- No. 1 seed Pepperdine vs. No. 4 seed College of Charleston Match 2 12 p.m. -- No. 2 seed Florida State vs. No. 3 seed Long Beach State Match 3 1 p.m. -- Winner of Match 1 vs. Winner of Match 2 (Semifinal) Match 4 2 p.m. -- Loser of Match 1 vs. Loser of Match 2 (Loser is Fourth Place) Match 5 3 p.m. -- Loser of Match 3 vs. Winner of Match 4 (Semifinal) Match 6 5 p.m. -- Winner of Match 3 vs. Winner of Match 5 (Final)
Sunday 8 a.m. CT Pairs Championship Single Elimination Tournament First Round - 8 a.m. (eight matches) Second Round - 9 a.m. (four matches) Semifinal 1 - 11 a.m. Semifinal 2 - 11:45 a.m. Finals - 1:30 p.m.