Arizona prepares to move to the sand

By Walter Villa

Abby Hornacek is the daughter of a former NBA star who is making her own name in volleyball, and next month she will help stamp Arizona as a pioneer in her sport.

On Feb. 6, Arizona schools will begin practicing for sand volleyball. The 10-match season starts Feb. 27, making Arizona the first state to offer sand volleyball as a high school sport.

“I’m very excited,” said Hornacek, whose father, Jeff, was a 6-foot-4 guard who had his number retired by Iowa State University and the NBA’s Utah Jazz. “This will be a good opportunity for a lot of girls to play sand volleyball and see what the sport is all about.”

While many girls will no doubt get their first real taste of the sand, Hornacek needs no introduction. The 5-11 senior for Xavier College Prep (Phoenix) recently came back from Chula Vista, Calif., where she trained with the USA Beach program.

Hornacek had committed to Kansas before finding out that the NCAA would be giving out sand scholarships. She then switched her allegiance and will be attending Southern Cal this fall.

Hornacek said she is proud of Arizona’s leadership position in sand volleyball.

“Some day,” she said, “we can look back and see we were part of something new and helped kick off something that will be successful for future generations.”

Despite her optimism, success for sand volleyball in Arizona is far from guaranteed. So far, only 10 teams have agreed to compete this spring, the first of a two-year pilot program instituted by the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

The schools joining Xavier are: Fountain Hills, Goldwater (Phoenix), North Pointe Prep (Phoenix), O’Connor (Phoenix), Scottsdale Christian Academy (Phoenix), Westwind Prep (Phoenix), Scottsdale Prep (Scottsdale), Valley Vista (Surprise) and Tuba City.

Here are some of the other details regarding sand volleyball in Arizona:

-- There will be 12 girls per team. That includes five two-girl duos and two substitutes who can be used in case of injury to a starter. If a sub enters, she must stay in for the remainder of the match.

-- Games will be best-of-three sets. Sets will up to 25 points. If a third set is needed, that will be played to 15 points, with all wins having to come by at least two points.

-- Matches are scored by the number of games won by the duos. Final scores will be 3-2, 4-1 or 5-0.

-- The court size will be Olympic-standard 52 feet by 26 feet.

-- The net is 7 feet, 4 1/8, inches, just like at the Olympics.

-- The sand will be 12-18 inches deep.

-- There will be a tournament at midseason and another at the end of the schedule.

Jon Aharoni, coordinator of USA Beach Volleyball youth development, believes Arizona’s modest start is a huge first step for the sport.

“The avalanche is starting,” Aharoni said. “We’re just gaining momentum. Scholarships are being handed out, and we’re being taken seriously. It’s a wonderful time for our sport.”

Still, there are some concerns. At smaller schools, where girls routinely play multiple sports, sand volleyball might take away some athletes from softball and track.

“High school coaches can get a little territorial when it comes to athletes,” said Josh Olshan, who coaches volleyball, tennis and soccer at Arcadia (Phoenix). “But I don’t think that will be a huge deal.”

Of a bigger concern, Olshan said, are issue such as facilities and cost.

“If you have to go off campus to practice and play, there are liability issues and transportation costs,” Olshan said.

In tough financial times, schools willing to participate have to find the resources to pay the coach’s stipend as well as the referees, transportation and facility costs.

Tim McHale, who coaches Xavier’s indoor program, will have his assistant, Matt Rogers, lead the sand program and is eager to see how everything works.

“We’re excited and nervous because it’s never been done before,” McHale said. “We think it’s a wonderful opportunity for our girls.”

Xavier, which has won indoor state titles four of the past five years, is the biggest school among the 10 committed to play this spring.

McHale said all the matches for all teams will be held at Victory Lane Sports Complex in Central Phoenix. Xavier will hold its practices at Brophy East, a swim club that has two sand volleyball courts.

“Most of my varsity and half my JV have expressed an interest in trying out for the team,” McHale said.

Rogers is confident his team will find a way to work around the club volleyball schedule.

“I’m a club coach, too, so we will juggle,” Rogers said. “We will practice right after school, and club teams tend to practice at night. It will be a bit of a time demand, but sand volleyball is going to benefit the girls’ indoor games tremendously.”

Rogers said he expects to see 20 to 30 Arizona teams participate in sand volleyball next year.

“I ran a club tournament recently, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of questions there were about sand volleyball,” he said. “The interest is there for 50 teams.”

Rogers said that this year’s Summer Olympics will again put a major spotlight on sand volleyball, and he’s glad Arizona is involved from the start.

“People in Arizona are happy to be a part of this movement,” he said. “We want to show the best of Arizona.”