Junior outside hitter Riley Whitesides looks to take on a new challenge and better her skills as a player by joining the Gamecock beach volleyball team for the 2023 season.
“It's a scary transition to join a new team, have a new coaching staff and all of that, so I was always kind of scared to do it," Whitesides said. "After this past indoor season, I kind of felt like if there's a time, I need to do it now because my eligibility might be up soon.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic the indoor volleyball season was extended to a full year, postponing the opportunity for Whitesides. However, with the pandemic winding down and indoor volleyball being shortened back to just the fall season, Whitesides decided to make the jump.
“I've always really wanted to (play beach volleyball). My freshman year, COVID was going on, so the indoor season was actually a year long, so I had always thought about it but was like, 'There's no way I can do it, I've got to get my full year,'" Whitesides said.
Whitesides started her junior year with the Gamecocks as a captain and in the fall 2022 season had 268 kills, 165 digs and 839 total attacks.
As a Gamecock, Whitesides has earned herself a place on the SEC All-Freshman Team and won three SEC Freshman of the Week awards. She was also honored as one of two players to have a reception percentage greater than .960 with more than 700 receptions.
Since she was in second grade, Whitesides has only played on indoor volleyball courts, but she's hoping that joining the beach volleyball team will help her become more well-rounded as a player.
“I just want to grow, and I want to learn and I want to just become a volleyball all around better player. I think doing both is going to get me there," Whitesides said.
“I'm very competitive. It's hard not to walk in and just know what you are doing like that, but I think this is an opportunity for me to learn and grow without having to be so competitive with myself.”
Whitesides’ talent has not gone unnoticed by fans, competitors and other athletes. Senior beach volleyball player Peyton Gray said Whitesides is an impactful addition to the beach volleyball team.
“I had watched her play when she was a freshman and a sophomore, and I went up to our coaches actually and was like, ‘This is someone I want on our team because she is very versatile, she can hit the ball, but she can also control her shots and she seems very level-headed on the court,” Gray said. “I knew she would translate well onto the beach season.”
Since transitioning from the indoor court to the beach, head coach Mortiz Moritz said Whitesides has improved considerably and is making the necessary adjustments.
“The sheer fact that she has been out in the sand for a concentrated amount of time for the first time for three weeks, she's made huge strides,” Moritz said. “She's someone with experience from the indoor side, (and) she's someone that comes with leadership from the indoor side, so it's kind of an interesting thing to be able to throw her into our group.”
Although beach and indoor volleyball have similarities, they are two entirely different sports which Whitesides said could make the change challenging. Beach is played with two players per side compared to six per side indoor and beach is played in a much smaller area.
“The way that I play indoors, like the style of play and kind of the player that I am, definitely could make this transition to beach definitely not easy," Whitesides said. "It's a whole different sport and nobody realizes it.”
Whitesides and the Gamecock beach volleyball team will begin their season on Feb. 25 against California Polytechnic State University in Tallahassee, Florida.