On April 13, 2011, Deerfield Beach, FlA., decided it was “Stephanie Pellitteri Day.”
The city gave the hometown girl—then a high school senior—the honor for being the first recruit ever to accept an NCAA Division I scholarship in the emerging sport of sand volleyball.
“It was real exciting to make history,” said Pellitteri, who committed to Florida State in February of 2011 and is now an FSU freshman. “I love [sand] volleyball.”
Not everyone, however, loves the sport. Billy Strachan, who coaches indoor girls’ volleyball at Pompano Beach (Pompano Beach, Fla.), said many of his peers “hate” the outdoor version of the game.
“They think it messes up their players’ timing when they come back to play the indoor season,” Strachan said. “I encourage my girls to play on the beach in the summer because you get a million reps, and you see the ball coming at you in different ways. You learn to read the hitter faster.
“The timing aspect, that’s a transition that a week or two will fix, adjusting to jumping off a hard floor instead of sand. I think the benefits are great, and I see the popularity of beach volleyball growing rapidly.”
Florida State’s Danalee Corso, the NCAA’s first full-time sand volleyball coach, sees the same thing. The Seminoles are building a five-court outdoor facility, and Corso preaches the power of sand volleyball.
“I’ve been working with the eight athletes on our roster for the past several months, and they have increased their vertical leaps by an average of five inches,” Corso said. “That’s partly our strength and conditioning program. But part of that is also the benefit of running and jumping on the sand on a regular basis.”
Coaches such as Strachan also believe that beach builds more versatility because players are not subbed out and have to use every skill in the game. Strachan said switching between the two versions of the game also keeps players from burning out mentally.
Another reason to consider the beach game is that it can create extra opportunities to earn college scholarships and, ultimately, professional contracts.
Jon Aharoni, who develops coaches and players for Team USA’s beach volleyball program, said the virtues of competing on the sand are obvious.
“Look at the impact that beach players such as Summer Ross (Washington), Lara Dykstra (Nebraska) and Jane Croson (Hawaii) had in their freshmen years indoors,” Aharoni said. “I think kids with a beach background are more ready to compete right away.”
Unfortunately, sand volleyball has its adversaries.
At a 2010 NCAA convention, 63 schools petitioned in a failed bid to remove sand volleyball from college programs. Many volleyball powers voiced concerns about the effect the sand discipline will have on the indoor game.
In addition, athletic directors were concerned about the cost of a new sport—especially in a troubled economy—but felt they would be pressured to add the sand game or risk losing indoor recruits who want to play both versions of the sport.
Still, there is no denying the increasing popularity of sand volleyball. The sport has more than three million U.S. participants, according to the most recent report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The number of participants has grown by 25.8 percent the past two years. And of the more than 240,000 girls under the age of 18 who are playing beach volleyball, 64 percent are competing only on the sand and not indoor.
Stephanie’s sister Kristina Pellitteri, who is a senior at Pompano Beach, said she prefers the beach game over indoor.
“Beach is more relaxed because you don’t always have coaches,” said Kristina, who will join her sister, Stephanie, at Florida State on a sand volleyball scholarship next season. “Indoor is so much more stressful. I also like that in beach you are always touching the ball because there are just two players. You are part of every play.”
Some of the sport’s increased popularity can be attributed to the Olympics’ addition of beach volleyball in 1996. The sport has been a huge ratings hit on television, and the success of the U.S. teams has helped.
Of the eight men’s and women’s beach volleyball gold medals that have been awarded, five have gone to American duos, including reigning champions Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor and Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers.
But it’s also true that the game has grown because of the efforts of coaches such as Cindy Phillips, who started Club Beach Dig in South Florida five years ago in an effort to teach the sand discipline to kids.
“Beach volleyball at the junior level is blowing up in Florida,” said Phillips, who is still an active professional player. “The sport is growing faster in Florida than in any other state.”
Five years ago, Phillips said, youth beach tournaments in South Florida would typically get 15 teams to enter. Now, she said, the average is about 180 teams.
“Back then, I had the only Florida club for beach volleyball,” Phillips said. “Now there are about 20, and you are starting to see some talented beach players emerge out of Florida. Before, it was just California.”
Phillips also said the sand game is more inclusive than indoor.
“The great thing about the beach is that you don’t have to be 6’3”,” she said. “There are so many smaller players who are amazing talents, and they now have a chance.”
Added Corso: “It’s a great game on TV, but it’s even better in person. It’s a dynamic and sexy sport.”
In the indoor version of volleyball, players can be coached throughout a point. In sand volleyball, which is making its debut this spring as an emerging NCAA sport, players can only be coached during timeouts and side switches.
“In sand volleyball, you can’t have a robot out there,” Florida State sand volleyball coach Danalee Corso said. “You need someone who can think the game on her own.”
This coaching rule is just one of the differences between indoor and sand volleyball. Here’s a quick look at how sand volleyball will work on college campuses.
Long Beach State
Florida Gulf Coast
College of Charleston
Florida International University
UC Santa Barbara
Cal State Fullerton
(Lists are current as of press time)
Whether you call it beach volleyball as most people do or sand volleyball as the NCAA prefers, there is no denying that the outdoor version of the sport is making waves. The NCAA has established sand volleyball as an emerging women’s sport. Fifteen colleges are competing for the first time this spring and many more are planning to debut in 2013.
Also this spring, Arizona became the first state in the country to make sand volleyball a high school sport. Talks are under way for more high school athletic associations to follow suit, with Hawaii and Florida among the front-runners.
“It seems things are moving more quickly than people expected,” said Jon Aharoni, the coordinator of beach coaching and development for USA Volleyball. “When the NCAA made its decision, things started happening. Clubs started adding the sport. High schools began asking for more information. It’s exciting.”
For sand volleyball to keep the momentum going and become an NCAA championship sport, there must be at least 40 schools competing for two straight years, and this must be accomplished within the next five years.
So far, seven of the colleges competing this spring are from Florida. The Sunshine State’s pioneers are Florida State, Florida Atlantic, North Florida, Stetson, Jacksonville, Florida Gulf Coast and Webber.
California is well represented with three schools: USC, Long Beach State and Pepperdine. The other colleges are Hawaii, Tulane, Mercer, College of Charleston and Alabama-Birmingham. Among the schools planning to debut in 2013 are FIU, Georgia State and UC Santa Barbara.
Other schools that have shown an interest are Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona, Colorado, San Diego and Cal State Fullerton in the West and Central Florida, Louisville, Rice, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State in the South.
“I think it’s inevitable that [sand] volleyball becomes a success,” Aharoni said. “It’s growing quickly.”
A quick and dirty Q & A on collegiate beach volleyball from Dave Carstenson, director of Fiesta on Siesta Key, the longest largest running collegiate beach event in the country.
What rules are applied during sand matches?
They will be played under a modified set of USAV beach rules designed by Steve Owen and Keith Murless.
What kind of matches will be played?
Each school is required to play in at least three dual matches against only other schools who have created it as a varsity sport. Matches will be played also as trios, quads and larger events. Court amounts will range from two to as many as 12 for play, thus making it very different for all involved with coaching and managing.
What makes the Fiesta event so unique?
We run all teams mixed up in pool play with two sets to 21 points and then break all teams out for single elimination playoffs; all make it out of pool play. Twenty-five courts makes it look like a professional event. We also run a senior event for those who have exhausted their eligibility. Those players have made it on to pro events. Plus we do this all in one day!
You have also run the Sunshine State Conference DII beach event for five years now. But no DII school has added it on as a sport, why do you think that is?
Title IX for some, economy for others, and believe it or not some coaches are not sure about it. I think it can only help schools attract more kids to come to attend their universities. We all know that playing the sport makes you a better player, hands down.
Where do you see the sport going for college?
I predict that in the next three years 40 schools will be playing to get a NCAA national event. I think after the Olympics we will see some of the professional athletes like Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh take on coaching beach, maybe even at their alma maters. DII will add several schools next year and NAIA will develop their own conferences.
How do you see yourself involved in beach when it becomes a sport?
I would like to be a sand coordinator for a conference.
Originally published in March/April 2012