Rice University is known for many things. Cranking out professional beach volleyball players isn’t one of them.
Meet Jessica Stubinski, professional beach volleyball player originally from Sycamore, Ill. and graduate of Rice University, who's now digging her way to the top of the National Volleyball League (NVL).
The NVL, established in 2010, is a professional beach volleyball league built by players for all players, united in one mission. That mission? To simply create a sustainable future for pro beach volleyball in the United States.
And sustainable is what it’s becoming after less than five years in play. Stubinski and her playing partner Brooke Niles came in second in the Players Championship held at Club Med Sandpiper Bay recently. The Players Championship was the sixth and final tournament of the 2014 NVL season and next year the league is coming back bigger and better than it has before — with 10 stops (including presumably another one in Texas).
Watching her play, you’d think Stubinski had been born in the sand and throwing balls around in a bikini her entire life, but that’s not the case.
The top eight men’s and women’s seeds were invited to Club Med to compete for a prize purse of $100,000. Prior to the final match, Stubinski said if she won, she’d put it in savings.
“Anything I win from these I try to save and hopefully one day open up a volleyball facility of my own and host the NVL maybe . . .” she says drifting off into thought as she reapplies sunscreen after an intense match.
Throughout the two-day tournament hosted at Club Med, one thing became clear about Stubinski (other than her abs) — she’s a fighter and an encourager. On the court you could hear Stubinski giving her partner encouragement each step of the way.
“Come on, we need more,” Stubinski would say after Niles sailed an ace over the net. Even though the pair was up four points. “Keep going,” she’d say after a huge sideout, no matter if the two were holding a commanding lead.
Playing In The Sand
Stubinski's fellow NVL pros voted her 2014 Breakthrough Athlete, and she also won Women's "Best Upset" for her win with Niles over reigning champs Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima and Karolina Sowala at the Midwest Championships in Ohio. Although as revenge would have it, Lima and Sowala came back as the grand winners in Port St. Lucie — over Stubinski and Niles.
Watching her play, you’d think Stubinski had been born in the sand and throwing balls around in a bikini her entire life, but that’s not the case. Sure she’d played indoor volleyball for years, even at Rice University, but the differences on a court and in the sand are tremendous.
“Right now I pretty much train with guys — I’ve trained with a group of guys for a while now and they treat me like a guy and are hard on me."
As for differences between the two types of play, Stubinski says her favorite part is that there are only two people in sand.
“I get to touch the ball more. I think the hardest part in indoor, you're always going into it wanting to slam and be aggressive, but in beach you have to be able to see the court and then shoot where the person's not and that definitely takes some time to learn," she says. "I know when I first started I wanted to swing at every ball and just swing, swing, swing, but really it's about placement.
"The second thing would be setting because it's just different. I wasn't a setter in college so I definitely have to work on that a lot and see myself getting better, but I definitely have a ways to go.
“I didn't start playing (sand) until I was about a month from graduating Rice in '09 when I was introduced to a small beach volleyball club right off 59 and Hillcroft (Third Coast Volleyball) that I’d only been 10 minutes from my whole career at Rice,” Stubinski says.
We both laugh at how ironic that is, as we both know Third Coast is kind of a hidden gem in Houston. One visit and you're usually hooked. That's how it worked for Stubinski at least.
“A girl at Rice was like ‘Lets go’ so I went out there one day and actually, that's the day I met my husband (Dan) so it was a pretty good day,” she says of her first time really playing volleyball in the sand and another meeting that truly changed her life.
Though Stubinksi may not have decades of experience like some of the girls on the NVL tour, she is making up for lost time now. “Right now I pretty much train with guys — I’ve trained with a group of guys for a while now and they treat me like a guy and are hard on me,” Stubinski says noting that she also does box jumps built by her husband in her garage alongside him.
As for Texas not exactly being synonymous with beach volleyball, Stubinski agrees but she's already seeing a change. “Texas volleyball is definitely growing right now and we’re supporting each other and it's awesome to see,” she says.
In fact, the NVL kicked off its 2014 season in Dallas at the La Playa Volleyball Ranch Beach Club, where Stubinski made it to the semifinals.
For someone interested in learning to play beach volleyball, Stubinski recommends open play at Third Coast. They also run leagues through SportsMonkey.
“It’s definitely good to get in with that and just start touching a ball and getting used to the sand because even if you've played indoor, it's a transition period into the sand," Stubinski says. "It's just different and you gotta get as many touches as you can and you gotta train.
"I know some people just go out there and they'll play pickup games and stuff like that and that's fun, but if you really want to push yourself you need to make sure you are training and getting the reps in that you need."
Stubinski turned 28 the Monday following her second-place finish in Port St. Lucie. The championship would have been a nice birthday present indeed, but she’s determined to work harder this offseason, perhaps in California to train in the deeper sands, and come back even stronger.