Sand is Their Castle: Beach Volleyball Sees Huge Growth

(TVT Junior Beach athlete, Jade Henderson competing in an AVP Next Qualifier at Sideliners in San Antonio. Original Article in San Antono Express-News)

There are probably a million ways for a teenager to enjoy spending a weekend during the summer. Waking up at the crack of dawn, enduring 95-degree temperatures and having your hair and body caked in sand and your feet blistered by a scorching playing surface likely aren’t among them.

But love makes one do some weird things. And when it comes to playing beach volleyball, Brandeis High School graduate & TVT Junior Beach athlete Jade Henderson has a head-over-heels infatuation.

“You get used to it after a little while,” Henderson, who will attend TCU in the fall and plans to play beach volleyball there, said of the elements. “In Texas, it gets pretty hot. But I just fell in love with sand (volleyball). A lot of girls are starting to do that now, I find.”

Beach volleyball is the NCAA’s fastest-growing sport, climbing from 16 schools with programs in 2012 to an estimated 50 this upcoming year. TCU, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Houston Baptist are the only Texas schools with programs.

UTSA, Incarnate Word, St. Mary’s and Trinity don’t have beach programs, but St. Mary’s did send teams to compete in the Heartland Conference sand tournament the last three seasons, winning the championship in 2013. Officials at all four local universities said there are no plans to add beach volleyball, but it might be considered in the future.

Texas A&M-Kingsville, which competes in Division II’s Lone Star Conference, has discussed adding beach volleyball in 2017. The Southland Conference has three schools playing the sport and would consider sponsoring beach volleyball if at least half of its schools had programs, said Jenny McGhee, the conference’s associate commissioner.

The NCAA will crown national champions in Divisions I, II and III for the first time next spring after beach volleyball spent the past three seasons as an “emerging sport.” An emerging sport is sanctioned by the NCAA but doesn’t compete for a national championship. At least 40 schools have to field teams for two straight years for a sport to be eligible for championship status.

“It’s huge because girls, they have an opportunity to go to college for sand volleyball now,” said Hannah Hood, who just concluded her playing career at Texas A&M. Hood, who was a standout at state power Austin Westlake, teamed with New Braunfels graduate Angela Lowak, who will be a senior outside hitter this fall at Texas A&M, to finish third in the women’s division July 11 in Texas Volleyball Tour’s AVP Next tournament at Sideliners Grill.

“I think it’s refreshing to be outside,” Hood added. “It’s addictive. It’s laid-back, but it’s also really competitive. You can tell more people are catching on. It’s going to keep growing.”

And there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for that growth. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, almost 500,000 women between the ages of 13 and 25 have started playing beach volleyball since 2007 — an 85 percent increase.

Arizona was the first state to offer the sport at the high school level in 2012. The University Interscholastic League, which governs extracurricular activities in Texas, rejected in October 2014 a proposal to add sand volleyball. The organization usually looks at the number of schools participating in an activity before considering adding it by a vote of the 32-member Legislative Council, UIL media coordinator Kate Hector said.

“I think (players) just find sand volleyball more fun than indoor,” Henderson said. “You get more touches on the ball, it’s only you and your partner, you get to be on the beach. You get to be an all-around player. You don’t have to be just one specific position.”

Jennings, May-Treanor Impact

Beach volleyball traditionally has been viewed as an event played for fun on the weekend or in the backyard at family gatherings. But the narrative changed at the beginning of the millennium thanks to the success of Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor.

Jennings and May-Treanor are considered the greatest beach volleyball team of all time, winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals (2004, 2008 and 2012). The duo won 21 straight matches during the Olympics, losing only one set. At one point, they won 112 matches and 19 tournaments in a row.

“Those two have done a phenomenal job and are amazing athletes,” said University of North Florida beach volleyball coach Samantha Dabbs, a Churchill graduate. “Everyone has seen them, and even if you don’t know anything about beach volleyball, you know their names.”

May-Treanor retired from competition after the 2012 Olympics, while Jennings, 36, has teamed up with April Ross in a bid to win her fourth straight gold medal in 2016. With May-Treanor no longer playing, and Jennings likely to follow suit, the search to find their successors has begun.

The Next Generation

Smithson Valley sophomore Abigail Paige Carter loves indoor volleyball.

But as a 5-foot-9 outside hitter, she knows her playing future likely is going to be on the beach. Indoor volleyball has increasingly become more about who is the biggest and strongest, with players taller than 6 feet becoming the norm.

“In beach, there’s a lot more room for us smaller players,” said Carter, who along with teammate Gabriela Sandoval earned a bid to compete in the West Coast Junior Olympics for beach volleyball at the end of this month in Hermosa Beach, California. “That’s something I appreciate about beach.”

Even longtime indoor players have caught the beach volleyball bug.

Ashley Liford, a former standout at Madison who played collegiately at Memphis and then professionally in Europe, has played indoors for the past 17 years. Three years ago, she played in her first beach tournament. She won her division in that event in Austin. Liford teamed with Tania Lyerly to win the women’s intermediate division last weekend in Texas Volleyball Tour’s San Antonio stop at Sideliners Grill.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this is really fun,’” Liford said. “I wish they had (beach volleyball) when I was playing juniors, because I would have loved to train in the summer in the sand. It does improve your indoor game. It was an adult thing (back then). Now that there are scholarships available, more kids are getting into it — which I think is good.”

Hood, who played on Austin Westlake‘s 2008 and 2009 UIL Class 5A (now 6A) state finalist teams, agreed.

“I played indoor (in college) for four years, and now all I want to do is play sand,” Hood said. “It’s definitely a way to use a skill you’ve spent so much time developing and you just don’t let it go to waste. You can still use it either to stay in shape, meet people, or compete at a high level. Even if you play for fun, there’s a lot of opportunities.”