C of C hits the sand
Sand, sun and volleyball is a combination that's hard to beat. Apparently, the NCAA agrees. Buoyed by the popularity of Olympic beach volleyball, the NCAA has made sand volleyball the newest women's intercollegiate sport.
And the College of Charleston is getting in on the ground level, one of just over a dozen schools from across the country and the only one in the South Carolina that will be competing in the sport this spring. As an emerging sport, sand volleyball has 10 years in which to gain the minimum number of 40 teams required to be an NCAA championship sport.
The Cougars began practice last week at their home facility, the Creekside Tennis Center in Mount Pleasant, and their schedule consists of five tournaments, including the College of Charleston Sand Classic set for Mar. 23-25. Their opening event is this week in Winter Haven, Fla., the Aspire Higher Volleyball Clash of the Collegians.
Among the other schools participating are Mercer, Jackson- ville, North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida Sate, Florida International, Tulane, Alabama-Birmingham, Pepperdine, Southern Cal and Long Beach State. College of Charleston coach Jason Kepner said several other schools have committed to begin competing in 2013.
College of Charleston director of athletics Joe Hull didn't have to be convinced that sand volleyball was right for the school, which already has a talented pool of volleyball players who have won either the Southern Conference regular season or tournament every year since 2001.
"We've been playing sand volleyball," Hull said. "In the spring, we hosted a tournament (on the club level). We have volleyball players and some play sand. Since we play it and live at the beach, it seemed like a natural thing for us to look at."
Kepner said the unpredictability of the weather made holding matches on the beach problematical. Creekside already had two sand volleyball courts and the school has added a third at the same location.
The College of Charleston hasn't added any scholarships, though the NCAA allows three. Cougar alumnus Jake Elliott, who played professional beach volleyball for 11 years, is serving as an assistant coach.
Sand volleyball can be much more forgiving than the indoor game, especially when it comes to knee injuries and floor burns. But separated shoulders can occur from diving into the sand, and sand in the eye can be painful.
"Sand is much more tiring," Kepner said. "You'll start a match and at 3-3 you're huffing and puffing, trying to catch your breath."
Running in sand is great conditioning," said senior Kelly Kolich, who added that after playing on sand she feels like she can jump out of the gym when she returns to indoor volleyball.
"In sand, you have to know all the skills. You can't just be able to hit or just dig. You have to do everything."
Indoor volleyball requires six players per side but only two are needed for sand volleyball. A minimum of 10 players is required for a team by the NCAA. A match consists of three sets, the first two played to 21 points and the third to 15.
Both Kepner and Hull see sand volleyball as a recruiting tool that could help the school's indoor program. Kepner said he foresees sand volleyball as being a draw for indoor and vice versa.
"We're one of only a few programs in America where you can sign as a volleyball player and play both indoor and sand," Hull said. "Some people might make a decision to come here because we have both."
And the reaction of players to the program would back that argument.
Emily Shelton, a junior from Cincinnati, said the players are excited about the addition of the sport.
"Every day we learn more about the rules, the travel, the scoring, and the more we learn the more we all get excited," said Shelton, who didn't begin playing sand volleyball until arriving at Charleston.
"We've always done a little bit of sand at the end of each spring. When they told us it was going to be an NCAA sport, we were all excited because we won't be just practicing."
Kolich said one of the reasons she chose the College of Charleston was the beach. Her hometown of Overland Park, Kan., is about as far away from a beach as one can get, but she played sand volleyball in high school on a court constructed by one of her coaches.
"I hate being cold, and from the second I came here and saw the beach I knew this was my top choice," Kolich said.
"Everyone going to the beach, if they want to play (a sport) they play volleyball. You only need two players for a team. Everyone is excited to be able to do something outside when it's nice.
"Not only do we get to go to the beach, but we get to play the game we love. We're super ecstatic about it."