It’s not exactly good clean fun, but sand volleyball has certainly begun to churn up the collegiate athletic landscape.
Most sports fans have likely seen the massively popular Olympic “beach” version: two players per team, no shoes and lots of sandy terrain to cover.
College volleyball programs have started riding the wave, complementing fall indoor seasons with spring sand competition. Forty schools now field women’s sand volleyball teams, and the University of New Mexico may soon join them.
The Lobo volleyball team is practicing on sand this week and will compete with women’s open teams in an outdoor tournament at Stone Face Tavern’s courts Saturday. Coach Jeff Nelson’s team will also devote part of its coming spring season to sand play.
Nelson recently submitted a proposal to UNM administrators to add sand volleyball as a varsity sport. If it’s approved, the Lobos could start competing in 2015.
“It’s a fun sport, but it’s also an amazing workout,” Nelson said. “It does nothing but make players better, and it’s really catching on around the country. It’s getting to the point where the first thing recruits ask is: ‘Are you going to have a sand team?’ ”
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said sand volleyball still has administrative hurdles to clear at the school, but he’s sees numerous benefits to adding the sport.
“There are a lot of reasons why it makes sense,” Krebs said. “It would enhance our existing indoor program, help with equity for our female student-athletes, and it’s not very expensive to add. I think it looks promising.”
Spurred by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, collegiate sand volleyball has gained significant traction in a short time span. Fifteen Division I schools fielded programs in 2012, with the number growing to 31 last spring.
Team competition is similar to that used in tennis. Teams compete in five two-person matches, using a best-of-five format to determine the overall winner.
The AVCA has sponsored championship tournaments but when the number of programs reaches 40, a sport begins transitioning from “emerging” to the NCAA championship level. Sand volleyball reached 40 programs in January. The NCAA transition could take up to two years.
As one might expect, most of the schools offering sand volleyball are in warmer climates. (Nineteen are in California and Florida).
But teams are beginning to pop up in non-beach locations, too. Mountain West schools Boise State and San Jose State have programs, as do Arizona, Arizona State and TCU.
“That’s one of the things we looked at,” Nelson said, “whether schools around us are picking it up. You need to have local schools to compete against when it comes to travel, but you also don’t want to lose recruits to nearby schools because they play sand and you don’t.”
New Mexico State volleyball coach Mike Jordan said NMSU is keeping a close eye on sand volleyball’s growth.
“It’s the shiny new toy that everyone wants right now,” he said. “We’re certainly considering it, but we want to see how well it works at other schools, how much it really helps their indoor programs.
“We do have plenty of sand available here.”
Nelson believes sand volleyball qualifies as a low-risk, high-reward proposition. UNM would ultimately have to build a three-court facility, but sand courts are not particularly expensive.
The AVCA’s website refers to how-to book “Sand for 40 Grand.” The NCAA also contributes to start-up costs for schools adding sports beyond its required minimum, Krebs said.
“That alone wouldn’t cover the cost,” Krebs said, “but the price tag for this sport’s not that big.”
UNM’s volleyball roster would grow by several spots if sand is added. Some players would play only indoor volleyball, others only sand and some would compete in both.
Nelson said his program would add four scholarships, which could be split among several players. He and his staff would coach both indoor and sand programs.
“It’s more work but it’s worth it,” Nelson said.
Several Lobos said they had little or no experience with sand volleyball before hitting the courts this week.
“I know who (Olympians) Kerri Walsh and Misty May Treanor are,” freshman Devanne Sours said with a laugh. “That’s about it.”
Still, Sours and her teammates were nearly all smiles during Wednesday’s sand session – except when it came to post-practice grooming.
“Sand everywhere,” sophomore Hannah Johnson said, shaking her head.
Nelson said UNM has ordered sand uniforms for its players, which amount to tank-style jerseys and knee-length spandex pants. The bikini-style uniforms favored by Olympic beach players are not typical for college players.
The game, however, is the same, requiring crisp passing, teamwork and plenty of hustle. “It’s harder than indoor,” freshman Cassie House said. “You have to be more dynamic in sand because both players have to do everything, but I love it. I definitely hope to be a crossover player. It’s great being out here.”
Nelson, who plays sand volleyball during UNM’s offseason, hopes Saturday’s tournament will serve as an introduction to players and fans.
“When you think about it, sand is where volleyball started,” he said. “Playing outside, getting dirty, what’s not to like?”