Cayman volleyball player Marissa Harrison will take a giant step in her life in September.
Harrison will be hitting the books and the beach at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, home to elite programmes in beach volleyball and architecture, her chosen field of study.
Cal Poly finished last year No. 8 in the NCAA beach volleyball rankings, and its architecture programme was named the USA’s No. 2 undergraduate program in a survey conducted by DesignIntelligence in 2018.
“It is intimidating because it’s going to be such a change; especially trying to balance academics and the demanding practice schedule,” said Harrison. “I’m really excited to take on the challenge and I’m really looking forward to it. At Cal Poly, academics always come first. We have an amazing staff that will help with our schedules and we always have access to tutors and whatever resources we need to succeed.”
Harrison has been a part of Cayman’s national beach volleyball team for years, and she recently competed with teammate Ileann Powery at the Island Games in Gibraltar. Harrison has also played for Cayman at NORCECA events, priming her for her first season of top-flight NCAA competition.
And at Cal Poly, she will have the advantage of working with one of the world’s most accomplished beach volleyball players. Cal Poly coach Todd Rogers was an Olympic gold medallist in 2008, a world champion in 2007 and a five-time champion on the professional AVP beach volleyball tour.
“I’m super excited just to hear about all the knowledge that he has,” said Harrison. “He’s an Olympic gold medallist. He knows what it’s like to be at the top and succeed and go so far in beach volleyball. Just to hear what he has to say will hopefully impact me a lot and help me to really improve my game.”
Rogers, reached by phone on Wednesday, spoke a little bit about the challenge in front of Harrison.
He said that it’s rare for a freshman to make an impact on a top college beach volleyball team, but that Harrison will be in the mix for a regular travel spot on the team. Rogers said he recruited Harrison when she was a sophomore but backed off when she verbally committed to Florida State University.
Then, about six months ago, Harrison contacted Rogers and said she’d changed her mind. She had been accepted to Cal Poly and wanted to know whether there was still a spot on the team. Rogers did not have a scholarship offer for her by that point, but he was excited to offer her an opportunity to play.
“I knew who she was. I had recruited her. She had come on a visit and I had met her family,” said Rogers. “I said, ‘Absolutely. That’s impressive that you got into architecture.’ It’s going to be hard for her to do both. I told her that and let her know. The architecture program is a really tough major to play a sport in, and everyone at Cal Poly has told both me and her that. But she’s a smart cookie.
“I can’t speak for other schools, but at Cal Poly, we don’t miss class. You’re there to be a student. You’re not there to be just purely an athlete where class is an afterthought.”
Rogers said that Harrison’s international experience will help her adjust to the NCAA level, and she will likely know a lot of her opponents from the southern California playing circuit. But still, said Rogers, it can be an adjustment even for experienced players to get used to an NCAA practice schedule.
“We’re going to be lifting three or four times a week, hitting the track and doing jump training. It can get pretty long, especially in the fall when we just practice for seven weeks,” said Rogers. “There’s a little bit of playing, but sometimes it gets a little tedious. A lot of people just aren’t accustomed to practicing every day, even if they’re an international or a club player, and obviously she is both. It’s a little bit of a grind. The harder part for Marissa or any other student is, ‘How are you going to do all of that plus be an architecture major, which is extraordinarily difficult?’ In and of itself, it’s amazing that she got in.”
Harrison’s home is about a five-hour drive from San Luis Obispo, and she said she loves the area around her new school. She will not move in and start her class schedule until mid-September, and the Division I beach volleyball season won’t start in earnest until February 2020.
That lends Harrison some time to adjust before being thrown into the competitive maelstrom. Rogers, who has led Cal Poly to back-to-back 25-win seasons, said that he stresses to each of his players that beach volleyball is not just about explosive athleticism. There’s a deeper mental game to boot.
“I had a high school coach who told me ‘This game is 90% mental and 10% physical,’” he said of the game’s mental grind. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right percentage, but the idea is that this game is very cerebral and intellectual. It’s not just, ‘I’m a beast and I can go up and hammer balls and I can do all these amazing athletic things.’ There’s a real mental component to it.”