Sand volleyball programs digging in

Seven sand volleyball courts sit on the grounds of Pinetop Sports Club, the home of Page High School’s fledgling club teams. Three volleyball courts flank a middle feature court.

As 4:15 p.m. rolls around, members of the boys and girls teams remove their footwear, allowing their toes to penetrate the fine grains of sand upon which they will practice. Some don sunglasses, a majority electing to wear Ray-Bans, while others leave their eyes exposed to the elements.

Coed drills begin practice, and the sound of volleyballs making contact with hands and forearms fills the air. Plenty of balls fail to meet a player on the next touch and glide across the soft sand. There is no yelling and screaming, though, mostly smiles and words of encouragement fill the air on a spring afternoon.

The pressure is low, the pace of activity is high, and plenty of learning takes place as sand volleyball takes hold in the high school ranks in Guilford County. Caldwell, Wesleyan and Hayworth Christina in High Point field teams, and Grimsley had one last year but couldn’t find a coach this time. To the west, Reagan, East Forsyth, West Forsyth and Reynolds play.

The sport, which has gained national attention during the Olympics and largely because of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, is not officially recognized by the N.C. High School Athletic Association nor the National Federation of State High School Associations. But the NCAA now has 53 programs, including UNC-Wilmington, playing beach volleyball in Division I.

“It’s a lot of fun because everyone is feeling out what it’s like to have a sand volleyball team,” said senior Copeland Jones. “Indoor it’s much more of a time commitment, everyone knows the rules, and it’s a lot more strict. To come out on the sand it’s more fun because we just have a good time.”

Ten girls and seven boys make up the first Page sand volleyball team, a non-sanctioned club sport competing as a member of the N.C. High School Sand Volleyball Association. Six of the 10 girls on the roster play both indoors and outdoors for Coach Trevor Hewitt. The boys don’t have the option of playing indoors, so the concept of bump, set and spike is new to them.

“We didn’t really know much at all coming into this,” said junior Trip Hughes, who with a majority of boys on the team is a member of the soccer program. “Having the girls who have played volleyball has really helped us along, especially playing with them.”

As practice continues, the girls and boys separate themselves by squad for team drills. The pace of play is noticeably different between the genders. The girls, many of whom are diving for balls in the sand, are attempting to hone their skills for the upcoming fall indoor season. The boys are trying to get the basics down while improving their strength and conditioning for fall sports season.

“It’s like watching a baby learn how to walk,” Hewitt joked about his male roster. “Some of the guys, if they had experience in middle school, they’ve forgotten everything. But they come out here, they work hard, have fun and get better every day.”

After serving and passing drills, it’s time for two-on-two competition. Players pair off and share their half of the sand court with just their partner, leaving plenty of sand to cover as well as to aim for across the net.

“Court vision is a bigger component in sand,” said Jones, who was an All-Area libero in the fall. “Indoors you see the bigger 6-foot-3 girls are scoring all the points. But outdoors if you can really see where the players aren’t and you can hit it to those spots, you can really win some games.”

Players communicate with each other after each point, meeting on the court for a few seconds to tell their partner what they are seeing or what they would like to do. A high-five is shared, and the two players go their separate ways. During the action, it is relatively quiet. On-court communication is limited, and there is minimal coaching coming from Hewitt.

“Indoor you have to place trust in all of your teammates,” said Jones, who has played sand volleyball for Beach South, a club team in Greensboro. “Outdoors, you have to have even bigger trust in that one teammate you share the court with, so having a good relationship and getting along with (with your partner) and being able to take constructive criticism is important.”

The game is growing in North Carolina. UNC-Wilmington is in its second year competing in NCAA Division I beach volleyball. The addition of the spring sport is already paying dividends in recruiting for the Seahawks.

“I was recruited for indoor, but one of the main things I was looking for in a college was somewhere I could play both,” said Halle Hunt, a sophomore in the UNCW program who graduated from Northwest Guilford. “When I was committing during my junior year, Coach (Amy Bambenek) said Wilmington was trying to get a beach team, and she called me my senior year to let me know it was happening and I was very excited.”

The relaxed environment at Page practices is also a part of UNCW’s beach volleyball atmosphere. It’s part of the reason Hunt is attracted to the outdoor version.

“I really like playing both,” said Hunt who played for the Beach South affiliate in Kernersville during her high school days. “But I want to pursue playing at the pro level for beach. The environment is completely different. It’s a lot more relaxed (during beach). They are playing music throughout the entire match.”

No matter the level, one thing seems certain: Sand volleyball should only grow in popularity.

“Since we started this year, a lot of people have gained an interest because we’ve liked it so much,” Hughes said. “People were just unsure if they were going to like it, but since we came out and experienced it I think there will be a lot more (players) out here next year.”- by Spencer Turkin, News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)