Digging the sand: ASU sand volleyball to begin first season in program history

It took eight months for coach Jason Watson’s dream of fielding an ASU sand volleyball team to come to fruition.

At the Maroon and Gold scrimmage Saturday, he stood at the University’s new sand volleyball facility in Tempe and admired his labor of love with a huge grin on his face.

The only problem was he could hardly see what was happening. It wasn’t tears of joy that clouded his vision, rather the torrential rainfall that struck the Valley on the afternoon of ASU’s first sand volleyball event.

Watson and his team were drenched from head to toe. One of the courts was starting to flood, and the scrimmage was canceled when thunder and lightning threatened player safety.

It wasn’t exactly how Watson imagined ASU’s new sand volleyball program getting off the ground in its inaugural season.

“We’re hoping it’s not some kind of foreshadowing for the season to come,” Watson said.

The season starts Saturday at UA’s Arizona Invitational in Tucson, exactly eight months after ASU announced on July 8, 2013, that it would add women’s sand volleyball, the University’s 22nd Division I sport, for the spring 2014 season.

ASU will join UA, CSU, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington as the eighth Pac-12 team to compete on the beach. Washington State, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah have yet to add sand teams.

Sand volleyball has exploded in popularity in years past, with more than 40 four-year NCAA colleges and universities now sponsoring the sport since its first season in 2012.

Adding sand volleyball to ASU’s repertoire of sports was inevitable, as Arizona is the only state in the country to sponsor sand volleyball at the high school level. But Watson said the sport’s immense growth is largely because of the likeability of a certain Olympic pairing.

Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor were at the forefront of the beach volleyball movement, winning three straight Olympic gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012. The pair captivated the Summer Olympics audience with its dominance and inspired a generation of young girls to take up the sport.

Watson credited much of the sport’s proliferation in recent years to Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor's success.

“Their success globally has just pushed this sport tremendously,” Watson said. “And without their success, I don’t think collegiate and sand volleyball is a possibility. There just isn’t the interest without Kerri and Misty.”

The generation of girls that watched May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings compete in their childhood is now college-aged and itching to compete at the collegiate level, one of the main forces behind the sport’s exponential expansion.

Kathleen DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, echoed Watson’s sentiment.

“Their success in the last three Olympic games and winning three consecutive gold medals and the amount of television time that has been focused on that over the last three Olympics has made the game very popular,” DeBoer said.

Sand volleyball is now an attractive prospect for a high school recruit, and having a beach program certainly helps draw the most talented players from the high school level.

While the sport is still in its relative infancy, Watson said not many players currently search out stand-alone sand programs. Most still want to play both court and beach volleyball.

Redshirt sophomore Jordy Checkal began her career at ASU as a member of the indoor team, but has transitioned to one of these sand-only players after taking the 2013 court season off to pursue academic opportunities. Checkal, a San Diego native, grew up on the beach and simply fell in love with the atmosphere.

Checkal is just one of many athletes that Watson believes will play only sand volleyball in the future.

“I think you’re going to see more of these stand-alone athletes that just want to play sand,” Watson said. “And down the road we’ll have to address that but for right now, if you want to come play sand volleyball, you can do that here at Arizona State.”

But sand volleyball isn’t just an attractive venture for student athletes. From a financial aspect, it makes perfect sense to add a beach volleyball team because the coaches, players and much of the equipment are already available.

“There have been very few sports in the last few years that could be started at a relatively reasonable cost at institutions,” DeBoer said. “Many of them required you to build a whole new field. There were large rosters. You had to start from scratch with a coaching staff, you had to start from scratch with the recruitment of athletes. Sand volleyball allows an institution to phase in their investment.”

Although some players like Checkal have played sand recreationally for several years, many others are making their first forays into the sport. While the basic concepts of the beach and court games are quite similar, beach has a learning curve of its own.

For one, players are in pairs, as opposed to groups of six, on a much smaller court with a heavier volleyball — so it doesn’t fly away in the wind. Sand games can go as long as three sets while court matches can go up to five.

But the hardest adjustment is the style of play. Among other things, open-handed tipping is not allowed and touches made at the net as part of a block count as the first of three contacts.

With only two players on the sand, players must be multi-faceted, comfortable with hitting, blocking, digging, setting and serving.

Watson said opposite hitters and setters are more suited for the sand while middle blockers and defensive players might have a tougher time switching over.

“If there’s some area of your game that’s a little deficient, it gets shown pretty easily out here on the sand,” Watson said.

Despite the challenges, Watson, who has coached the indoor team since 2008, said players such as sophomore middle blocker Whitney Follette and freshman defensive specialist Genevieve Pirotte have excelled on the sand.

Of course, many of the skills transfer back to the court team, and ASU, which has made the NCAA tournament two years straight, expects to see marked improvement indoors after the sand season.

The sand at ASU’s facility is deep — Watson estimated it was about 30 inches — slowing movements and restricting players’ jumping.

Freshman outside hitter Kizzy Willey, who will be paired with Checkal, said when she does play court, she moves noticeably faster and jumps higher.

“We go back inside, and we think we can dunk and stuff because we’re so used to jumping,” Willey said. “We get back to the gym, and everything seems maybe a little bit easier moving-wise for sure.”

Willey said the sand forces her to play trickier, meaning she has improved her tip and roll shots dramatically as opposed to just slamming the ball every time. She also noted marked defensive improvement.

“You have to really pick up on the other team’s tendencies and where they typically hit and how they like to place their shots,” Willey said. “It improves our defense so much, just because we have to read so much; we have to watch what the other team’s doing, and it makes us smarter players.”

Willey and Checkal will be one of five ASU pairs that will compete when the season begins Saturday. Sophomore outside hitter Macey Gardner will be paired with Follette, sophomore setter Bianca Arellano will be with senior outside hitter Bethany Jorgensen, freshman outside hitter BreElle Bailey will be with Pirotte and sophomore middle blocker Andi Lowrance will be with junior outside hitter Nora Tuioti-Mariner.

Saturday’s scrimmage was supposed to help determine ASU’s final seedings. Despite the rainout, Watson said Willey and Checkal, Gardner and Follette, and Arellano and Jorgensen have separated themselves from the other two pairs but that the final decision will be made during practices this week.

Saturday, March 8, ASU will face Arizona Christian and UA, the first two games of ASU’s eight scheduled matches, the minimum required by the NCAA.

While Watson would have preferred more dates, he said he is OK with satisfying the minimum in the program’s first year.

“We’re learning an enormous amount about the sport as we go along, and we don’t want to kind of overburden ourselves the first year in overscheduling,” Watson said.

ASU will host three home events in its inaugural season, against Nebraska on March 26, UA on April 24 and Boise State on April 25. ASU’s facility is at the PERA Club, about three miles north of ASU’s Tempe campus.

The facility has three courts and is adorned with ‘Sun Devil Volleyball’ signage. Watson said it lends itself well to hosting more events in future seasons.

“We don’t have to chase volleyballs all over the place, and there’s plenty of places for people to come watch,” Watson said. “It lends itself perfectly to what we’re trying to do.”

Even with beautiful facilities, new programs and countless interested athletes, sand volleyball still lacks the one thing that would make it official: an NCAA-sponsored championship. There have to be 40 Division I sand volleyball teams that have competed for two years before the NCAA considers adding a sanctioned championship.

2014 will be the first year in which more than 40 teams will compete at the Division I level, meaning the sport could see an NCAA-sanctioned championship in 2016.

The AVCA currently sponsors a year-end collegiate sand volleyball championship, won by Pepperdine in 2012 and Long Beach State in 2013. But DeBoer said having an NCAA championship is the ultimate goal.

“It gives it legitimacy,” DeBoer said. “NCAA is the brand, if you will, for collegiate championships so having that brand on the national championship is a step up.”

Men’s Division III volleyball was the last sport to add an NCAA championship, which Springfield won in both 2012 and 2013, and DeBoer said the sport has experienced 20 percent growth since adding the tournament.

Currently, ASU, UA and USC are scheduled to compete in an invitational tournament April 19 and 20 in Santa Monica, Calif. However, the Pac-12 does not offer an officially sanctioned year-end tournament.

“I know the conference really wants to move toward a conference championship so that we could have one automatic qualifier for the team championships in early May next year,” UA sand volleyball coach Steve Walker said.

ASU will face its rival from down south twice in the inaugural season: March 8 in Tucson and April 24 in Tempe. The sport will count for the Territorial Cup Series, with the one point split between the two matches.

UA is the fourth Pac-12 team to add sand volleyball in 2014, along with Oregon, UW and ASU. Walker, a former associate head coach for UA’s court team, said UA’s program is structured differently than ASU’s.

“We’re one of very few programs that are working independently from the indoor program,” Walker said. “(For) now, we’re still going to use a good number of the indoor players.”

Despite a hectic court season and a late start on sand scheduling, ASU still expects to compete in its first season on the sand.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Watson said.

Reach the reporter at bmargiot@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @BenMargiott

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