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By Brian Fees
Southern Tier Sports Report
The season hasn’t even started yet, and Corning graduate Sadie Sharkey already has won a beach volleyball title.

Sharkey and her UNC Wilmington teammate Grace Sistrunk teammates up at the AVCA Fall Championship and they brought home a title in their bracket.

To win the bracket Sharkey and Sistrunk beat top seeded Santa Clara 2-1, winning 19-21, 25-15, 15-11.

The pair then beat Oregon’s duo winning 21-19, 13-21, 15-13.

In the final they took out New Orleans 21-14, 18-21, 15-12.

The pair were seeded eighth and top three higher seeds to claim the title.

The bracket play came after the pair went 0-3 in pool play, competing against some top teams in the country, going against LSU, FAU and Cal Poly.

The pair fell to FAU 2, 21-11, 21-19, then fell to LSU 2, 21-13, 21-11 and Cal Poly 2, 21-9, 21-14. They then went to bracket play where they went unbeaten.

“That was awesome, that was the first year they have done that with that many pairs,” Sharkey said. “It was really cool to be a part of that. 64 pairs from around the country, a four-day tournament, and we got to compete against the best players in the country. Such a great experience. Getting to play schools like UCLA, Florida State and Oregon, it was a great experience to play with my partner Gracie, she did awesome and she’s young too.

“They were all really competitive matches. Even our first match of the day against Florida Atlantic (One of the toughest pairs there), hanging with them, playing with them gave us hope for what we can do this season coming up.”

It was special for Sharkey to be able to represent her school at such a big event.

“It’s huge for the school to get our name out there and show recruits we are a competing school,” she said. “We are getting invited to these things and it only brings more success to the school in the future, seeing we can really compete against these programs.”

When the pair went into the bracket play they just went in looking to have fun, and do their best, and they came away winning the bracket.

“I think our mentality going in was we have nothing to lose,” Sharkey said. “They see us as the last in the pool, we have nothing to uphold, just go out there and play the game we love and compete. Why can’t we beat anyone? On any given day anyone can beat anyone.

“I think getting to play against these girls really opens your eyes to the next level of beach volleyball that we are expecting for this spring for our team. We play good schools, Tulane, North Florida, schools that were there, to see them before we see them this spring is helpful and something we can bring back to the team that this is what this level of volleyball looks like.”

It was special for Sharkey just to get a chance to compete in such a tough tournament.

“It was definitely an honor,” she said. “Very thankful I was chosen. It was such a good feeling to go there and represent my school. I’m thankful I was chosen for that, it’s definitely going to help my game for this spring for sure.”

Sharkey isn’t sure who she’ll play with this year, but it could be Sistrunk.

“I think it definitely could be,” Sharkey said. “We have so much depth this year, so I’m not 100% sure, but we definitely play well together. Other girls play well together too.”

Sharkey believes playing in the tournament gives both her and Sistrunk a little edge over some other players in the league.

“It definitely gives us an upper hand over other schools that didn’t get to do that,” she said. “Even getting to play that level of volleyball together, getting those extra reps and time to learn each other and figure each other out.”

This matters a lot in a pairs sport where chemistry is so important.

“You are so right, when you are talking experience of us playing the game and makes you see the game differently,” Sharkey said. “Time and playing the sport over and over again makes you comfortable, more relaxed and having that experience and getting more touches and playing all year round.”

After Covid impacted the offseason in the past it’s nice for Sharkey to get the work in this fall and winter.

“It’s been great, I feel like our team is so conditioned because we’ve had the opportunity to train as much as possible,” Sharkey said. “We’ve been able to compete every single day because we don’t have these restrictions. WE are extremely in shape. WE played South Carolina this fall. We played Coastal this fall and the College of Charleston this fall. Getting those games is huge for us to bring into the spring.

“It definitely is the most preparation I’ve had, having the break over winter is a lull because I got to compete so much this fall and having this break increased my urgency to play. I’m excited to get the season start. Getting those extra games in the fall is great for your experience, so many reps is a huge benefit.”

Sharkey came home some during the winter, but she also had a trip overseas.

“I did, I came home for about two weeks, I didn’t get to play much volleyball, but I actually went to New Zealand and got to play a lot of volleyball there because it’s there summer.”

When she came home it was so different than being in college. The weather in New York definitely doesn’t lend itself to beach volleyball this time of year.

“It’s so different,” she said. “It’s going to be 70 which is unbelievable. Coming home is definitely more of a weight training. I try and lift as much as I can and get stronger and build up my muscle. There is definitely indoor courts in Rochester you can play at, but I really tried to take those few weeks to train indoors and get my strength up.”

The season gets going soon as the first exhibition for UNC Wilmington is Sunday against Liberty and then that same day they open the season against Catawba.

“I’m so excited, we have been training really hard the past few weeks so we are really looking forward to getting going,” Sharkey said.

UNCW joined a new conference this year, joining the Sun Belt Conference. They join a conference that already had Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, ULM and Southern Miss and along with UNCW added College of Charleston, Mercer and Stephen F. Austin. Georgia State is a two-time NCAA Championship participant that made the round of six a season ago.

“It’s a very competitive conference, but I also feel like we have a chance to win our conference,” Sharkey said. “Our team has so much depth, so many strong pairs, our lineup is so different from last year. A lot of schools will be surprised and I think that’s a huge advantage for us.”

UNCW was picked third in the pre-season poll behind Georgia State and Coastal Carolina.

Beach volleyball is the fastest-growing sport in the NCAA with nearly 180 participating institutions across all levels including 67 D1 schools.

The team had just switched conferences a year ago, but they made a switch again as the spot keeps growing, allowing them to get into conferences with schools closer to them.

“I think honestly every year I have been here we have been switching conferences because of how fast this sport is growing,” Sharkey said. “Because the sport is growing so fast each year when we switch conferences we play all these same schools and it brings us closer to home with new programs joining.”

Sharkey was all conference in the Atlantic Sun Conference a year ago and now she hopes to make all conference in a new league.

“I definitely want to be on that all conference team again,” she said.

Sharkey loves being part of the sport and always has people asking her about beach volleyball.

“Definitely, so many people are always asking questions, which is awesome,” Sharkey said. “Everyone wants to learn more. Living in a beach town in Wilmington people will see the shirt and be like that’s awesome, I didn’t know that’s a thing. I love being a part of that.

“People are always asking. Everyone is so supportive of the sport, which I love. People are so curious of what it’s like. It’s like any other sport, it’s so competitive. It’s a very different environment from other sports and I encourage people to check it out. There is so much more involved than any other sport. It’s so interactive.”

The sport really requires a special bond between the players. And, there is a lot of pressure on each player as there is just two of you on the court, so there’s no hiding anyone.

“It’s you and your partner,” Sharkey said. “It’s more of a mental game. You are being watched more than other people (in other sports). There is a lot more pressure on you.

“I think more in beach volleyball is you will see a team has a scouting report on you. They will choose to serve you or your partner. The best way in indoor the poole not getting the hits is the partner not being served. You are touching the ball and you have more control of the play, even if you aren’t the one being served to.”

To have the bond on the court the players put a lot of time off the court getting to know each other.

“We like to have conversations with our partners daily, honestly every day we have conversations after practice,” Sharkey said. “It’s always good to be constantly checking in with your partner and learning about the person next to you on the court. They need to know how you like to be communicated to and how they like to be communicated to. That’s something you as a partner have to take into your control and figure out about your partner.

“We are definitely a very close knit team and you will always fine each other hanging out. If we go a day not seeing each other it feels like we haven’t seen each other in a month. These are the best friendships I’ve had in my life and I’m thankful for that.”

Sharkey had a close bond this fall with Sistrunk as they played together.

“We are not only partners on the court, we are roommates too,” she said. “We are eating meals together, doing everything together. It’s like a relationship. We are getting closer through conversations about volleyball and life in general. It’s really important to have that bond off the court and on the court.

“I think even with our entire team too. If I’m not playing with someone I have those great bonds together and we want to compete for each other.”

It’s crazy for Sharkey to think she’s a junior now.

“It’s definitely crazy, time flies by,” Sharkey said. “It’s sad, but also fun. I love all my teammates. It’s cool to be able to look at it now and be like that’s me (that’s one of the upperclassmen). It warms your heart. It’s crazy and so sad it’s going to be over soon, but it makes me want to play harder.”

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