From the moment Sasha Karelov could walk, she knew volleyball would be her future.
“[Volleyball] was like thrown onto me,” Karelov said. “As soon as I started running, my mom was like, ‘Let’s play!’ My sister is five years older than me, so she would play in like recreational leagues and clubs and stuff, and I was just always tagging along and I would join in when I was like seven.”
These days, the 5-foot-9-inch graduate transfer student plays with athletes her own size, or at least her own age. What Karelov lacks in height she makes up in resolve and grit, and has quickly become one of the athletes her teammates admire.
“Being an older player for sure, I think I’m relied upon, especially since it’s my second semester playing beach I should already know what the coaches are saying,” Karelov said. “I think our coaches always expect the seniors to be our example on the court.”
Although she grew into her leadership role naturally, it didn’t start out that way. After transferring to Long Beach State in the middle of the year, Karelov was thrown into a culture she didn’t know and had to learn to play a sport she hadn’t played professionally before.
The 23-year-old made a name for herself during her four seasons of indoor volleyball at Duke as a libero, a position designated for setting and defensive plays. Even so, she still had a hard time finding a school to accept her for beach volleyball due to her size.
“Most schools didn’t really want me to be honest,” Karelov said. “I’m short and I was a libero, so I didn’t really hit and I had no beach experience, so Mike [Campbell] was actually one of the only coaches that got back to me,” Karelov said.
She had to master every skill in the game to play beach volleyball, realizing quickly how different it is from indoor, as it requires a player to be skilled in offense and defense, instead of focusing on a specific role. Karelov was quick to prove herself on the court, winning her first four beach volleyball games and being selected as a first-team All-Big West selection in her debut season.
At the No. 2 spot, she and her teammate, Kobi Pekich went 20-12, setting the single season and career pairs win record, while Karelov led the team with 371 digs.
This season, Karelov faces a new role with more responsibilities. Just eight games into the season, head coach Mike Campbell made a lineup adjustment, placing Karelov and Anete Brinke in the No. 1 spots for the first time in either of their careers.
“I remember when [Campbell] said you’re playing on the ones, me and Anete just looked at each other and we were like, ‘Okay let’s do it’,” Karelov said. “We were working really hard and it’s fun when something good comes from all the hard work you’re doing. We didn’t expect it, so when it happened it was even more fun.”
This change also took place on a day Long Beach faced No. 4 Florida State. Karelov and Brinke swept the Seminoles 21-11, 21-11, proving Campbell made the right choice.
“I think she just knows herself really well as an athlete and she’s making all the right decisions,” Campbell said. “She’s a really good example of energy and resiliency and fighting on the court.”
Since that day, Karelov and Brinke have started at the ones twice, winning one match and losing another.
Although her road to the No. 1 spot was relatively short, it wasn’t easy. It required her working day in and day out and learning from teammates.
“She just leads by example. She goes hard everyday, she never takes days off,” Brinke said about her teammate. “You can really see how from the first day she came in she has really progressed and it’s huge progress and I think that demands respect.”
Karelov learned this spirit of self-discipline and hard work from her first coach — her mother. Before moving to America, Marina Karelov played professional volleyball in Russia for the Belarus National team from 1984 to 1986.
“She’s obsessed with it, she still plays,” Karelov said. “She’s turning 50 next week and she still plays with me all the time. I kind of got that obsession from her.”
While Marina never forced Sasha to play volleyball, she entered her in multiple leagues and clubs at a young age and would often coach the teams herself, often driving her daughter to the point of tears.
“My mom was hard on me, but I think that’s how I reached what I did,” Karelov said. “You have to have high standards. I always thought I was going to play volleyball. If I didn’t, it would be a waste, because my mom worked so hard to play with me to get me to every league and club.”
Although her mother lives in North Carolina, she doesn’t let that stop her from setting goals for herself and improving her game everyday. She’s determined to help get the team to Alabama for the NCAA tournament this year and find a partner to compete in the Association of Volleyball Players pro tournament after that.
For now, Karelov will work toward a strong ending to her last season at Long Beach and the future she’s known since she took her first steps.