Pellitteri sisters excelling in the sand for Seminoles

Courtesy of Steve Musco

Stephanie Pellitteri, left, struggled last season as a freshman with a rotating set of partners, but she and sister Nina are 31-4 together this year.

Now that Stephanie and Nina Pellitteri are playing sand volleyball together at Florida State, their youngest sister, Brittany, is taking full advantage of the situation.

"When I came home for winter break, my mom warned me that things had changed," said Nina, a 5-foot-9 freshman. "Brittany had taken over my room and used it as her extra closet."

While Brittany -- a high school junior who is considering sand volleyball scholarship offers from Hawaii and FIU -- enjoys her new space, her older sisters are having the times of their lives as they get set to play this weekend for the sport's second national championship. Partners for every match this season, they lead Florida State in wins with a 31-4 record.

"I can't get enough Pellitteri in my life," Florida State coach Danalee Corso said.

"From vertical jump to agility tests, Stephanie wins every category on our team," Corso said. "She didn't get here like that -- she's worked her way there. When she goes home on summer break and then we retest her in September, her numbers are always better. And Nina was one of the top recruits in the nation.

"On top of that, these are two sisters who complement each other so well. Steph is the leader, the thinker, and Nina takes direction probably better than anyone on our team. You can give her constructive criticism and she never takes it personally."

On Friday and Saturday in Gulf Shores, Ala., the sisters are hoping to help FSU win the double-elimination national tournament. Six teams have been invited by the selection committee: defending champion and top-seeded Pepperdine, No. 2 Long Beach State, No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Southern Cal, No. 5 North Florida and No. 6 Louisiana-Monroe. They won't be the only sisters there either. The top-seeded Waves feature Taylor and Caitlin Racich, but they are not expected to be paired together.

Florida State, which finished third last season, is 15-2 this year and will face first-year program Louisiana-Monroe (7-4) in Friday's opener.

"We won't take [Louisiana-Monroe] lightly," said Stephanie, a 5-8 sophomore. "Hopefully, we've learned from last year. We beat Long Beach in the regular season and then lost to them twice at nationals. You can't ignore any team. You have to go strong."

Stephanie and Nina have definitely been a strong duo this season, leading Florida State in wins, mostly at the No. 5 slot. Corso, by the way, believes the sisters have what it takes to eventually become FSU's top pairing.

For Stephanie, the 31-4 record is a major improvement. She went 25-16 as a freshman, when she rotated partners.

Nina was still a high school senior at the time, playing for Pompano Beach (Deerfield Beach, Fla.).

Courtesy Steve Musco

This season the Pellitteri sisters defeated all the rivals they will face in the national tournament except nemesis Long Beach State.

Stephanie, part of a tight-knit family that includes parents Donna and Matt, said she badly missed her sisters.

"Last year was a little hard -- no palm trees, no beach," Stephanie said. "Not being able to hop on the beach and play with my sisters, it really made me appreciate home."

Nina said there were many nights when Stephanie would call her, in tears.

"She was really upset," Nina said. "Our family is really close. [Plus,] we practically lived on the beach in Deerfield. Tallahassee can be pretty boring [in comparison]."

On the court, it was also a struggle for Stephanie, who said it seemed as if she was playing with a new partner every week.

This year, the sisters are the only FSU players to compete in every match with the same partner.

"We have natural chemistry," Stephanie said. "But it's also easier to play with the same partner because you get to work on things and improve every week."

The sisters have been doing that for a while. In the summer of 2011, they won an AAA Florida Beach Volleyball tournament, competing against adults.

A few months earlier, Stephanie earned the distinction of becoming the first player in sand volleyball's brief NCAA history to commit to a scholarship in the sport.

"That's one of my proudest accomplishments," Stephanie said. "It's awesome that I could be a part of history."

She and Nina could make school history this week if they help deliver Florida State's first sand volleyball national.

Either way, the sisters figure to play a major role. At various points this season, they have faced all five of the other teams now at nationals, and they came away with wins against all except nemesis Long Beach State.

Stephanie, who has more experience in the sport, plays defender. Nina plays as an undersized blocker and uses her superior ball control to find a way around taller opponents.

"Nina has long limbs," Corso said. "She's 5-9, but she has the reach of a 6-footer."

In addition, because the sisters know each other so well, everything seems to click for them once they get on the sand.

"It's nice playing with Stephanie," Nina said, "because when I got here, [the coaches] didn't tell me right away if I was going to start or who was going to be my partner."

Nina said that when you play with a new partner, there is added pressure because you don't yet know how she will react when you make mistakes.

But with her sister, there is no apprehension.

"We kind of make fun of each other," Nina said. "We played in a tournament this year, and Stephanie just tripped. There was nothing in her way -- she just fell.

"It was close game, but I wasn't even mad. We both just started laughing."

Oh, and about that bedroom issue back home in Deerfield Beach?

That's OK. Stephanie and Nina are now sharing a lovely four-bedroom apartment in Tallahassee with two of their teammates.

There's ample closet space for all.

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