Lauren Gardner

St. Joseph Academy teammates Izzy Micheli (left) and Lauren Gardner (right) pose with coach Antoine Pastor. Micheli and Gardner played at Manhattan Beach in California during the USA Volleyball National Beach Tour Junior Championship July 18-23.

For obvious reasons, Ohio isn’t known as a hub of beach volleyball activity.

Nestled firmly in the Midwest, the Buckeye State produces its fair share of talented indoor men’s and women’s teams at the youth, high school and college levels. But when the game moves outdoors and onto the sand, coastal locations reign supreme.

That’s why it was all-the-more impressive when the duo of incoming St. Joseph Academy seniors Lauren Gardner and Izzy Micheli advanced to the USA Volleyball National Beach Tour Junior Championship, held July 18-23 in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

The teammates — Gardner from Avon and Micheli from Columbia Station — share indoor courts year-round as members of the SJA varsity team, as well as the Cleveland Volleyball Club. They’ve teamed up to play on the beach since 2015, and have advanced to Nationals each of the past three years.

“I think we’ve been on the same indoor team since fifth grade,” Micheli said. “We played (beach volleyball) just for fun at one point, and then we turned it into actual competition.We just kind of fell in love with it, and we love to play together. We felt we’re really good together on the court, so we wanted to get more competition after (indoor season ended).”

Moving from the confines of an indoor court to an outdoor one brings with it its own steep learning curve, which the pair have tried to master. While the standard high school or club match will feature six teammates, beach matches are played two-on-two, meaning more responsibilities for the players.

In addition, weather becomes a factor outside, where wind can change the trajectory of a ball. At Manhattan Beach each of the 505 teams present in the four age divisions (12U, 14 U, 16U, 18U) had to account for wind affecting the ball.

Normally positioned as passers on the back line in high school, Gardner and Micheli did a little bit of everything to first advance out of the national qualifier, held in Cincinnati in April, placing second, and repeated the task again in California.

“For indoor, our main responsibilities are passing the ball, pretty much,” Lauren said. “But then in beach, it becomes a thing where we have to pass and then we also have to attack, so we work a lot on our shots since we’re not very tall. Also, moving around in the sand is a lot harder than indoor. We have to get our ‘beach feet’ going, as our coach calls it, just conditioning for beach.”

The pair started their 18U tournament July 21 in a regional round, finishing fourth in a five-team pool against competition that came from Arizona, Florida, Texas and Washington. They won just one of four matches to start, but came on strong the next day in the second round of pool play, posting a 3-0 record.

While beating teams from California, Florida and a combination of Texas and Oklahoma, the duo scored a pool-high 88 points while allowing a pool-low 68. For their efforts, Gardner and Micheli advanced to the Gold Playoff bracket, where they lost to a team from Texas, 21-17 and 21-16, tying for 17th place. Gardner and Micheli were one of only two pairs from Ohio to advance to the Gold Playoff bracket.

“We lost to a pretty good team from Texas,” Gardner said. “We weren’t exactly happy with where we finished, but we played our best and gave it our all, so we’re happy with the effort we gave.”

“A lot of the girls who play beach are from Texas or California,” said Micheli, “so they’re already near a coast, so it’s harder (to play against them) because in Ohio there’s not a lot of beach teams. It’s harder competition.”

Now, the duo is preparing for the 2019 varsity season, which will begin Saturday at home against St. Ursula Academy. They will be key players on a Jaguars team that will attempt to make a deeper Division I State tournament run than last year, where it was beaten by Magnificat, 3-2, in a district final. Two seasons ago, Gardner and Micheli were part of a team that finished as Division I State runner-up.

“We’d like to get back to States, maybe also go undefeated,” Gardner said.

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