COLUMBIA - Litsa Darby didn't see her crossroads coming until she was sitting in her assistant coach's office more than a year ago.
It was the end of her freshman season on South Carolina's indoor volleyball team, a natural time for reflection. Instead, her coach couldn't stop talking about the future. Sitting across from her, then-assistant Moritz Moritz told Darby about a new sport the athletics department would begin the following year.
The Gamecocks were taking the game outdoors, creating a sand volleyball program. Moritz would be the head coach. Darby, a Mount Pleasant native, wanted to be part of building something new.
"The big deciding factor was the fact that it was the very first sand volleyball team at USC," Darby said. "I'm such a Gamecock fan that it was like, 'Wow, this is such an opportunity. I would be really upset if I didn't take this on because not everyone can have the chance to play on the first sand volleyball team at South Carolina.' Once I decided that, the whole thing really just fell into place."
Darby never hesitated. Her excitement made for an easy decision. She called her parents immediately after the meeting with Moritz, telling them she had to be part of this new opportunity.
Still, the move to sand volleyball represented a fundamental shift.
Darby played indoor volleyball her entire life, beginning when she was 7 years old. As an All-American at Ashley Hall, she was recruited to play indoors at South Carolina. Darby would follow a proud family history. Her mother, Georgia, played indoor volleyball at College of Charleston. Her aunt and cousin played for the Gamecocks.
Before college, Darby's only experience with sand volleyball was "cross training," doing sand drills specifically designed to make her a better indoor player. She had never played outdoors competitively. Once she began, it didn't take Darby long to find a similar passion for sand volleyball.
"When I heard about the sand program, I really turned up my game outdoors," Darby said. "I was playing all the time, and I just really fell in love with the game. That's when I started focusing on the sand."
Darby said the transition to sand volleyball hasn't been challenging. Still, the outdoor game is much different than indoors.
With only two players on the court per team - down from six in indoor - sand volleyball players are involved in every play. There is more "specialization" with indoor volleyball. Players can afford to excel at one specific skill.
In sand volleyball, Moritz said players must do everything well.
"You have to be a much better, more well-rounded player across the board than some of the specificity that they're starting to get to with indoor," Moritz said. "That doesn't mean that there aren't amazing, well-rounded volleyball players that play indoor, but you can't be a one-tool or two-tool kind of player and translate very easily to the sand game."
Moritz grew up playing sand volleyball. His first coaching jobs were at high schools on the West Coast, where the sport originated before slowly sweeping across the country.
It's no secret why the game is more popular in warmer regions. Sand is important, but players must also deal with outdoor elements. Ideally, in warmer regions, weather stays somewhat consistent.
As Darby learned last year, that's not always the case.
"Last season, we were playing in the snow, we played in the freezing cold, we played in the rain," Darby said. "And then we played in 100-degree weather. So the biggest differences to me would be the weather."
Through all the changes, Darby had fun. South Carolina finished with a 5-12 record and 3-2 in home matches, a promising start for a program in its first season. Darby and her partner, Morgan LaVigne, played a memorable part in the team's first-ever home victory.
The Gamecocks beat Oregon 4-1 before a home crowd of more than 1,100 in March. Darby and LaVigne clinched the first match, the program's first-ever home victory. Afterward, Darby thought about her goal, what originally enticed her to start a new journey with sand volleyball.
She wanted to be part of building something new at South Carolina. With the win, she'll forever be part of history.
"It was awesome," Darby said of her first season. "Every day was a new experience. Every day, we were all working hard to really build the foundation and the baseline for sand volleyball.
"I really think that we, as a team, really set the standard for what sand volley- ball at USC is going to be like in the future. I just think we're going to continue to get better and better. Being a part of it was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me."
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