The top three duos for Cal Poly beach volleyball have a freshman paired with an upperclassman who has at least four years of collegiate experience under their belt. 

With eight players leaving the team from last year’s team and four new players –– three true freshmen –– entering, head coach Todd Rogers had to make some changes.

“[The pairings] are definitely both to have someone with experience be able to educate the frosh, as well as talent itself,” Rogers said. “I think it is a great way to kind of get freshmen –– or even sophomores –– up to speed and it has worked out well for us.”

From a records standpoint, it has worked out. The team sits third in the Big West with a record of 17-15 and is ranked 13th in the nation.

The Makeup of the Pairs: Freshmen and Upperclassmen

Coach Rogers has freshman Ella Connor paired with 24-year-old redshirt senior Tia Miric as the top pairing. The duo is 20-11 together, even after facing four of the top six teams in the country.

At No. 2, freshman Piper Ferch has played the whole season alongside redshirt junior Jayelin Lombard. They are 19-13. 

In the No. 3 spot, indoor and beach player freshman Peyton Dueck is paired with graduate student Addison Hermstad, who played her first four years at Tulane. Dueck and Hermstad are a team-best 17-5 together.

As Coach Rogers said, the pairings get players up to speed. This happens both in their performance and in their mental approach to the game.

“I wish as a freshman I would have known that life always works itself out,” Hermstad said. “I struggled so much in my time in undergrad –– I dropped out of college, I flunked out of college and whenever the freshman come stressed out about a lot of things, either inside or outside of volleyball, I want them to know that you can always fix it.”

Hermstad is playing out her last year of eligibility this season. Naturally, she has quickly stepped into a leadership role on the team.

When asked about her partner’s impact on the team, Dueck turned to Hermstad and said, “you have literally been here for a year and you are one of our leaders, it’s super cool to see you step into that.”

A Sisterhood

Not only do the three pairings match up well in terms of skill and on-court success, but also in terms of personality and attitude. The six girls all described their partners as being “like a sister”  to them.

While the term “like a sister” is used often, all three pairs said that was their relationship with their partner. According to them, a sister is someone you can trust, who always has your back, who will tell you the truth, wants to see you succeed and is not happy unless you are.

Hermstad describes that your duo partner is exactly that.

“The biggest thing I learned at Tulane was the importance of relying on your teammates,” Hermstad said. “It is so difficult to play this sport without ultimate trust [in your partner], the four other pairs playing and even the girls that are not in the lineup.”

When watching a tournament, you will see these “sisters” are always by each other’s side. They scout other teams together, watch footage during breaks and high-five and hug each other after every point, set and match –– win or lose.

No. 1 Ella Connor and Tia Miric

Connor described that she and Miric have a familial bond because they “have a great communication system” and “both take feedback well.” 

“We work really well together in the sense that we could just tell each other like it is, without taking anything personally,” Miric said.

Like sisters, each pair shares some similar qualities unique to themselves. No. 1 Miric and Connor share in their detailed, knowledgeable and confident approach to the game, according to Coach Rogers.

At the beginning of the season, when each of these duos were being formed, the partners were excited to be competing alongside each other. 

“She [Ella] is obviously one of the most talented players on the team … she really understands the game well. I was excited to play with her and kind of pick her brain … and grow together,” Miric said.

No. 2 Piper Ferch and Jayelin Lombard

On a personal level, Ferch and Lombard express an air of joy around one another. Ferch joked that Lombard “really took her under her wing,” but credits Lombard for leadership and their strong friendship on and off the beach.

“Piper has been a really really really great partner in comparison to what I’ve experienced,” Lombard said. “Being able to have the consistency mentally [from Piper] has been really new for me and she’s been so steady.”

Coach Rogers echoed that sentiment about the freshman.

“Piper is super easy to play with,” Coach Rogers said. “She’s super relaxed –– doesn’t get super high, doesn’t get super low.”

In terms of play, Rogers said “they compliment each other.”

“Jayelin is a good physical player and Piper is a ridiculously physical player at the net for Jayelin,” Coach Rogers said.

Ferch (right) sets up Lombard (left) for the hit. Eyasu Betwos | Mustang News

Lombard has either played as a member of the number two or number three pairing in all of her years at Cal Poly.

“[Lombard] kind of experienced what Piper is already going through as a freshman at 18 years old,” Rogers said. “She can relay that experience to Piper; they lived in the same dorms, kind of had a lot of the same experiences.”

The grouping is 6-4 in their last ten, only losing to powerhouse ranked opponents: No. 1 USC, No. 3 UCLA, No. 6 LMU and No. 8 Stanford. Over the past two weeks, Ferch and Lombard also beat No. 4 ranked Florida State.

No. 3 Peyton Dueck and Addison Hermstad

Dueck and Hermstad have one of the more playful relationships on the team, according to Coach Rogers. The two go back and forth, jokingly giving each other a hard time and making one another stronger players on the beach. 

“They have a pretty funny relationship,” Coach Rogers said. “They give each other a lot of grief –– in a fun, enjoyable, poke-the-bear kind of way.”

According to Hermstad, the Tulane transfer “called dibs” on Dueck being her partner for the season. Since Dueck was playing indoor volleyball during the fall, she did not get a chance to practice with the team and this was Hermstad’s first time seeing her. 

The two started the season with different partners, but eventually got put together and have gelled since.

Hermstad (left) and Dueck (right) share a smile on the court. Eyasu Betwos | Mustang News

“We outsmart teams,” Dueck said. “The thing we say is, we get the job done.”

In fact, they have their own system and play style for how they “get the job done.”

“We have this kind of dynamic where I try to make the least amount of errors as possible and Peyton plays the game super dynamic, where she tries to go for every point,” Hermstad said. “So we balance each other out. She goes for the risky stuff and when I play the more conservative game, it inspires me to go for shots I normally wouldn’t go for –– try to play the game a little riskier.”

In practice leading up to the Center of Effort Challenge hosted by Cal Poly, Coach Rogers ran a lot of incentivized drills. Essentially, if a pairing successfully completed a drill or challenge, then they would not have to run suicides or face a physical penalty.

Early in the week, Dueck failed one of the challenges for her and Hermstad. Looking back, the two laugh at the moment. 

“I saw a lot of my freshman self in her,” Hermstad said. “I would dream about the errors I made in matches. Now, I try to make fun of [Dueck] to lighten the situation.”

The two said they call each other out during their matches too, but “it honestly helps our game because we point out we are doing” –– right or wrong. 

“The banter and fun she brings helps me have a more light-hearted stance on the game,” Hermstand said.

Sisters don’t only ride the highs, but they also get you out of the lows according to Dueck. 

“Whenever I am down, she is always like ‘it’s you and me, we’re together,’” Dueck said about her partner.

Two Together

Since these unconventional pairings aren’t dominated solely by the upperclassmen, despite the older players having more experience, the success of the pairings depends on both players.

Coach Rogers described this concept, using his No. 1 pairing as an example.

“It is not necessarily a 90% Tia, 10% Ella,” Coach Rogers said. “I think it’s probably more of a 50-50 or maybe a 60-40 Tia and Ella because Ella does have a lot to bring to the table. Ella has a really sharp mind. She is definitely experienced beyond her years.”

The No. 2 duo of Lombard and Ferch will both be with the team again next season, something that Lombard noted as key for their improvement as a duo. 

“It’s been cool to invest in something you know is going to be pretty consistent,” Lombard said. “Knowing that I will be here next year too –– it is really exciting to have something to look forward to.”

The relationships and chemistry between these pairs have been vital to the team’s successes so far and they will most likely be crucial for the team to achieve its goal of making a national championship and winning it all.