College volleyball: FGCU learned plenty on its West Coast trip

The phrase, "Old stomping grounds" seemed to fit.

Florida Gulf Coast University second-year volleyball coach Dave Nichols said he would learn a lot about the state of his program when the Eagles flew to the West Coast to take on No. 16 USC, Northern Arizona and No. 21 Pepperdine last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

A UCLA graduate who helped the Bruins to three national titles in the mid-1970s, Nichols wanted to gauge where FGCU is and how far it needs to go to be of the same caliber of those strong West Coast programs he knows so well.

After falling by a combined 9-0, his jury is in.

"We have a long way to go on our roster in terms of having the same talent level," said Nichols, who won two national Division II titles at Barry University. "I've probably got three kids who could make the roster of USC or Pepperdine."

But the whitewashes weren't as bad as they looked, Nichols said.

"We showed some toughness," Nichols said. "We were 20-all with SC in Game 1 and 18-all in Game 2, and it was their home-opener. We played one stinker (25-15 loss in Game 3), which also shows we're inconsistent.

"We got a lot out of (the West Coast swing). We were a way better team by the end of the weekend. It did all the things we wanted it to do."

In the preseason, Nichols and the Eagles -- finally eligible for Atlantic Sun and NCAA tournament play -- talked about knocking off a Top 25 program in the first round of NCAA play.

That goal still is in mind, although the Eagles, who will host the conference tourney, need to make up a lot of ground.

"We have a long way to go to be a Top 25-caliber program," Nichols said.

USC outkilled FGCU 42-28. But Eagles junior outside hitter Jelena Simic, a transfer from Seward County Community College, had 10 kills, second only to USC's Alex Jupiter, who had 16.

"Jelena Simic was as good as any player at USC and Pepperdine," Nichols said. "She really stepped up. We feel good about the way she's playing right now."

After losing at Pepperdine on Saturday, the two-time Atlantic Sun regular-season champion Eagles opened conference play with a 3-0 blitz at Stetson on Tuesday night. The difference in the caliber of play from USC, Northern Arizona and Pepperdine to Stetson was night and day.

"The speed of the game, when we played (Tuesday) night, it was so slow after what we had been seeing out there," said Nichols, whose team is 2-5 overall. "I thought we were efficient enough. Was it great volleyball? No, but we took care of business."

Stetson is not one of the stronger A-Sun programs, but Nichols believes the conference is tougher across the board.

"I think there's been a lot of improvement with our (A-Sun) schools," he said. "Belmont and Lipscomb took some good programs to five (sets). It looks like Kennesaw State is much better."

Nichols believes the rotations are coming together and the expected return of 6-foot outside hitting transfer Anna Wagner soon from a minor knee injury should be a big boost, Nichols said.

"I feel good," he said. "We're starting to figure things out."

FGCU faces its eighth consecutive road foe in an A-Sun matchup at Campbell, which has beaten ACC foe North Carolina State, at 7 p.m. Friday. After a five-hour drive from Buies Creek, N.C., to Johnson City, the Eagles will take on East Tennessee State at 3 p.m. Saturday before heading to USC Upstate for Monday night's matchup.

"It's a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel situation," said Nichols of opening the season with 10 straight road matchups. "It's early in the season before the grind has kicked in. And after this, we don't have tough, long trips left. We'll actually get an off-weekend in October. We'll have a chance to rest (players) if they need to. We'll have a lot of training opportunities.

"The rest of the season is a lot easier, and I like it because we're going to need to train to be sharp at the end of the year."

Connect with Dana Caldwell at www.naplesnews.com/staff/Dana_Caldwell

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