Sand volleyball matching up AZ colleges at all levels

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                </div>  Apparently, what it takes to level the playing field in college sports is a few truckloads of sand. A small private Christian school like Grand Canyon University, which is […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Apparently, what it takes to level the playing field in college sports is a few truckloads of sand.

A small private Christian school like Grand Canyon University, which is beginning a transition from Division II to D-I play this year, wouldn’t normally find itself on the volleyball schedule of a Pac-12 power like University of Arizona.  But throw some sand on the court and that all changes.

Not only did the Antelopes get a chance to play Arizona in sand volleyball this season, but won two of three matches.  After losing 2-3 to the Wildcats in the first match of the season on March 8, the ‘Lopes turned the tables at home, beating the Cats 3-2 last week.  And then beat Arizona again to win the title in a weekend tournament.

This is the Wildcats’ first season of participation in the new sport, while GCU was the first college in Arizona to add sand volleyball as a women’s varsity sport and has been on board with the nation-wide movement since August of 2012 and began play last spring.  Arizona State followed suit in July of last year and Arizona Chrisitian University, an NAIA school even smaller than GCU, has also added the sport to its offerings.

And that makes the sand volleyball movement all the more interesting because it throws in-state schools together in competition that otherwise might not happen.

At the college level, sand volleyball took root late in the summer of 2011, under the direction of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), and is working toward signing on 40 participating schools, at which time the sport will be eligible for full NCAA sponsorship and a national tournament can be organized.

And it was Arizona that got the ball rolling at the high-school level when it became the first state in the nation to test the idea of installing sand volleyball as a recognized varsity sport, operating a program that played once a week at the Victory Lane Sports Park in Glendale.  Just five schools signed on for the inaugural season in 2012, but participation has been growing.

The sport, which exploded in popularity following the last Olympic Games when beach volleyball got a lot of attention, is gaining traction at both the high-school and college levels – for a number of reasons.  It provides students an additional opportunity to get involved with a team sports, it’s a relatively inexpensive program to start and run, and it provides the indoor volleyball players an additional training opportunity.

The difference between the indoor and sand programs are minimal.  In the sand game, the court is smaller and the ball is bigger and lighter. Scoring is based on a best-of-three games instead of the standard five sets in the indoor game, and there are five two-player teams that are ranked by ability.

At most of the college programs, the head coach already on board with the indoor program, will do double-duty with the sand program.  Some, like Arizona, assign a coach on staff to direct the new program.

“It’s an exciting expansion for not only our current student-athletes, but those looking to join us in the near future,” said Jason Watson, ASU’s head coach, when that school added the program last summer.  “Sand volleyball, and all it entails, provides another resource for our program to continue to develop and grow within the Pac-12 Conference and nation.”

The high schools play off-site, but some of the bigger colleges have added their own courts on campus.  GCU, in its second season of play, set up their own courts, while Arizona took an aggressive approach to their facilities, building a four-court layout that has also been designed with additional space for a future championship court. The courts have beach-quality sand that is 18 inches deep.

Arizona State is using courts at the PERA Club, a private club for Salt River Project employees and families that is conveniently located a few miles north of the main campus.

Grand Canyon wrapped up its competition with local teams by winning three sets against Arizona in the championship match of its own pairs tournament on Saturday.   And it was a couple of local players, Kelli Dallmann from Cactus High School and Mackenzie Phelps from Prescott High, that took top honors in the tournament.

Arizona State has Arizona and Arizona Christian on its schedule, so far beating ACU twice by identical 5-0 scores and losing to the Wildcats, 4-1.  The Sun Devils will have a chance to even the score with their Tucson rival when the meet again in ASU’s second-to-last game of the regular season April 24 (UofA will continue to play through to their last regular-season game, May 4). 

A new sport in Arizona is apparently enjoying some early success.  And with any luck, it will be able to wrap up the season before the soon-to-arrive summer sun takes the fun out of playing in the sand.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)