SoCal remains center of sand volleyball growth

Next Friday, some of beach volleyball’s best talent will converge on the sand in Gulf Shores, Ala., for the second-ever AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships.

Hundreds of college players will show why sand volleyball has become arguably the fastest-growing sport in the country and why Southern California is at the center of it all.

After a two-year period in which the sport grew by over 25 percent, sand volleyball was named an emerging sport in January 2010. By 2012, 16 Division I athletic programs fielded teams, officially starting a new chapter in the sport’s history.

“I knew it would just explode,” said USC head coach Anna Collier. “I really believe there’s a grassroots (effort) with USA beach volleyball that is now really pushing this sport. And now we have somewhere to draw sand volleyball players from without just having to have the crossover indoor players.

“We are really growing actual beach or sand volleyball players in this country.”

In its inaugural season, teams from southern California made their marks on the sport and have yet to look back. Pepperdine won the first-ever event while Long Beach State fell just one point shy of reaching the championship match.

This season, the field of teams grew from 14-16 and next season, at least seven schools will be adding sand volleyball as a varsity sport.

The sport needs 40 schools to be officially recognized as an NCAA championship sport, but the way the sport has grown, that number could be reached by next year.

USC felt so strongly about the sport’s growth that the school constructed a brand-new on-campus facility and is now also one of few schools awarding scholarships to sand-only players. Pepperdine recently awarded its first-ever sand scholarship to senior outside hitter Caitlin Racich.

UCLA soon jumped on board a year ahead of schedule. Head coach Stein Metzger, himself somewhat of a legend in the sport, said all it took for UCLA was a simple vote.

“We were a little behind the gun, we weren’t planning on doing it until 2014 but we had the administration behind it which was important,” said Metzger, who won three national titles as an indoor player for UCLA and took fifth in the 2004 Summer Olympics in beach volleyball. “We just went to team and said, ‘Hey, does anyone want to play?’ and every hand went up.”

The Bruins, much like Long Beach State, are currently fielding a team of all crossover athletes, which has presented new challenges with both academics and conditioning.
Academically, student-athletes now get much less of a reprieve with tougher classes and are no longer to reserve tougher classes for the offseason as the offseason has been eliminated.

Physically, players need to develop “sand legs” which require more endurance and use different muscles than required in the indoor game.

“You need that similar explosiveness, but you have to have that explosiveness on a sand surface,” Collier said. “They were very opened minded in saying, ‘What do we need to work on?’ I said, ‘Well, you need to knock them down and get them up fast.’”

While the athletes deal with the academic and physical adjustments, the coaches have an immense amount of coordination to do between the two programs. For Pepperdine, that meant using head coach Nina Matthies for both programs. At USC, Collier runs the show while UCLA and Long Beach State have chosen to have their women’s indoor coaches oversee the program while handing over the reigns to the sand coaches.

Legendary head coach Brian Gimmillaro, May’s former college coach, has relied on sand coach Matt Ulmer’s first-hand knowledge. Ulmer was part of an inaugural sand program at DIII Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc. Assistant coach Erika Chidester, who works with both teams, helps put the pieces all together.

“I had kind of already been through some of those things but it was difficult because we’re not fully funded like other schools,” Ulmer said. “So we just have to work harder.”

The addition of sand volleyball will enhance the overall profile of the volleyball programs at each school — top recruits will want to play both.

It’s clear that the sport is still growing, but while it continues to create an identity, it’s clear the Los Angeles area is on the ground floor of what many are expecting to become one of the most exciting college sports.

“It was a lot of culmination of unknown,” Matthies said. “The level has risen just from last year to this year and I only see that continuing.”