Most Division I athletes are recruited by college coaches to just play one sport.
However, the odds played in favor of Ella Larkin and she committed to play both indoor and beach volleyball at LSU.
Larkin comes from a family of athletes, so becoming a collegiate athlete was always a part of her plan. The 5-foot-10 sophomore from Maize, Kansas, signed her National Letter of Intent to become a Tiger during her junior year of high school.
“I was first recognized by Russell [Brock], so I was first going to come here for beach,” Larkin said. “Then I got in touch with Fran [Flory] when she was the [indoor] coach, and she was like, ‘I would love to have you on the team too,’ so she gave me the opportunity to do both. I thought it was pretty awesome, so I just took it.”
Having played indoor volleyball since she was around nine years old and picking up beach volleyball in the years following, Larkin has balanced the life of a multi-sport athlete for most of her life.
“It’s always been my thing,” Larkin said about transitioning back and forth between indoor and beach volleyball. “It would be [indoor] club season and then in summer it’s beach season.”
Larkin was recruited to fill a defensive specialist role for the indoor team, but after a series of injuries on the team during her freshman season in 2021, Larkin was asked by the coaches to take over the starting setter position.
“Growing up, my dad was always my coach, and he was always like, ‘You are going to train every position,’ so I think that kind of helped me coming into college because I could fill any role that the coaches gave me,” Larkin said.
After being thrown into the setter position, Larkin easily ran the Tigers’ offense, helping the team achieve a 0.236 hitting percentage during the 2021 season. She received SEC Freshman of the Week honors twice and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team. Flory talked of Larkin in high regards, mentioning that she would still give Larkin the reins to the offense even if the injured starting setter recovered.
Larkin’s success was no surprise because she was recruited for her high volleyball IQ, but to come in as one position then ending up making a huge impact in a completely different position is what stands out the most about her athleticism.
Following the end of the 2021 indoor season, a few things changed for Larkin. She was preparing to hit the sand for her first collegiate beach season when she heard the news about Flory.
After 24 seasons as LSU indoor volleyball’s head coach, Flory decided to retire. This was news for all players, and everything was subject to change under a new head coach, including Larkin’s position as starting setter.
The roster at the time had no official setters, and a coaching change was reason enough for incoming players to reevaluate their commitment. With the best interest of her team’s success in mind, Larkin didn’t think much of what could change and was ready to take whatever role she was given.
“I was recruited officially as a libero, so I was like, ‘If we get a transfer, I’m supposed to be a libero,’ so I was okay with [stepping down] because that’s what I came in here to do,” Larkin said. “Just whatever the coaches needed me to do, I would do.”
LSU volleyball alumna Tonya Johnson was picked to fill the role as head coach, and Larkin had nothing to feel other than excitement about this hire.
“When I first heard that Tonya was going to be hired, I honestly was just super excited because I [had] heard a lot of great things about her, and I was like, ‘This could be an awesome change for LSU volleyball,’” Larkin said.
Despite the initial question about what role Larkin would be given under Johnson, the setter problem was dealt with, and Larkin was able to refocus on her original defensive role.
“We got a freshman and a transfer setter coming in [for 2022], and then we had libero open up and I was stepping into the libero role,” Larkin said.
Indoor volleyball was headed into the off season when Johnson was hired, but Larkin’s training was far from over as she was set to begin practice for beach season. She had the opportunity to work on her skills in a different aspect before taking over the indoor libero position.
Going from indoor to beach volleyball is more of an adjustment than it seems because of the factors that are out of a player's control. Since Larkin spends the fall time training with the indoor team, she loses a huge amount of beach training and has to spend extra time tweaking the small details of her skill.
“It’s crazy the difference that passing is for me,” Larkin said. “As a libero [for] indoor, it was like, pass super high for our setters to run the offense, but out [in the sand], there’s wind or whatever. So, it’s like, you have to pass low.”
“Thankfully, the girls on the beach team are very welcoming and they knew it was going to take some time to adjust.”
In Larkin’s first beach season, she played mostly exhibition matches and had one appearance in the starting lineup with a feature on Court 3. After a season of training with the beach team, she was ready to take on a bigger role for the indoor team.
The LSU indoor volleyball team has had an up-and-down record over the last few seasons, but Larkin knew that under Johnson’s coaching, the 2022 season would be the start of something new for the program.
“Tonya’s a great coach,” Larkin said. “They worked us hard every single day in practice, and once I got in the gym with her, I just knew that this [past season] was going to be special.”
The 2022 season was nothing short of special. Despite getting off to a slow start in the beginning with lineups changing and court chemistry still developing, the team started to get the hang of things toward the middle of the season and put their hard work on display against top-25 teams.
SEC play began on Sep. 21, 2022, at home for the Tigers against No. 20 Arkansas, and after fighting through a five-set thriller, LSU came out on top with the 3-2 win. After finishing the match off with 17 digs and three assists, Larkin saw this win as the turning point for her and the team.
“I think that kind of just flipped a switch for all of us and we were like, ‘This is something that we want to do,’” Larkin said. “‘We want to be ranked, and we want to be one of those teams that everybody wants to beat.’”
Most fans saw the top-20 win as a one-time thing for the team, but the Tigers proved everyone wrong when they traveled to face No. 15 Kentucky three days later. Another five-set thriller took place, and once again, the Tigers took home the 3-2 win. Larkin anchored the defense with another 17-dig performance.
The team continued to push the limits of strong opponents into the end of the season and earned a spot in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship for the first time since 2017.
The Tigers were set to go up against the Big West Conference champions, the University of Hawaii. The Rainbow Wahine entered the tournament with a 22-6 record, and in comparison, to the Tigers’ 15-13 record, Hawaii was picked as the favorite to win.
An impressive record didn’t stop the Tigers from playing their best volleyball, though. LSU stunned the volleyball world with a 3-1 win over Hawaii to advance in the tournament for the first time since 2014.
“It was awesome in the locker room, it was so much fun,” Larkin said. “It was honestly just like this relief that all of our hard work had paid off. That was our goal: to go to the tournament, and then to win. It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh we made it to the tournament, we’re done.’ It was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to win. We’re going to do this.’”
Larkin finished her sophomore campaign leading the SEC with an average of 4.34 digs per set and was recognized with several awards for her defensive leadership in the back row throughout the season. She started the season being acknowledged as one of the top liberos in the country by NCAA digital host, Michella Chester.
Larkin also earned SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors after a 31-dig performance against Alabama and a 17-dig performance against South Carolina. She didn’t stop there, though, as she closed out the season with a spot on the AVCA South All-Region team after helping lead the Tigers to their first winning season since 2019.
After the indoor team finished the season, Larkin was headed back out to the sand. With newly trained defensive skills under her belt, Larkin secured a spot in the starting lineup with her new partner, Lara Boos.
Larkin and Boos have been between Courts 3 and 4 throughout the season, and with both of them being defensive-minded players, they bring a new look to beach volleyball.
“Lara and I are very similar in our aspects of the game—super scrappy, go-for-everything type,” Larkin said. “I think [being] smaller-sized and both of us being blockers, it’s just [about] communicating. We communicate very, very well on the court and, again, just our scrappiness and willingness to let nothing hit the floor is just something that I think is really awesome.”
As the season moves forward, Larkin and Boos continue to show how well they work together in the sand. Despite the pair’s 11-2 record, Larkin knows her work is far from over and looks forward to getting more training done with the beach team.
“In the fall, I lose all that training time out here being indoors, so continuing to learn from Russell and Cati [Leak] and building my connection with Lara [is important],” Larkin said. “It’s truly special, Lara and I’s connection. So, super excited to continue to get wins with her and get wins against big-ranked opponents too.”
The Sandy Tigs are currently ranked in the top five nationally and are just two months away from the NC Beach Volleyball Championship. Since Larkin’s playing time last year was limited, she’s looking at a chance to play in the beach tournament for the first time.
Following a historic indoor season that included an appearance in the title run, Larkin has high hopes for a similar season out on the sand.
“I’m super excited, especially now that lineups have come out and I’m in the lineup,” Larkin said. “This is going to be a great year and we have great girls on this team. Just bringing that excitement from indoor out here to the beach is pretty awesome.”