Arizona makes history in the sand

By Walter Villa

READ MORE: Sand game gains momentum

Officials from the Arizona Interscholastic Association gathered the young athletes and made a brief speech.

“They told us we were making history,” Scottsdale Prep sophomore Leslie Smith said. “They told us to have fun and to always remember we were the first players in the country to play sand volleyball.”

The historic event -- the first official high school sand volleyball games -- happened Feb. 28 at Victory Lanes Sports Park in Glendale, Ariz. Originally,15 schools had shown interest in competing in Arizona this season, but budget and travel issues reduced the field to five.

“It’s a little sad for the other schools,” Smith said, “because they are missing out on something fun.”

Eric Hodgson, the outreach director for the Arizona Region of USA Volleyball, said he is not disappointed with the smaller-than-expected turnout of teams.

“We’re grateful,” he said. “We’re happy to have five schools that have shown a vision for what the sport can lead to in terms of scholarships and opportunities for female athletes.”

Hodgson’s organization donated beach volleyballs and helped train referees who did not have experience with the sand version of the sport. The Arizona Region also sponsored a clinic -- open to players and coaches -- with pro beach volleyball standout Jenn Snyder.

Also helping the cause was Victory Lanes owner Mike Krueger, who donated court time at his facility in north Phoenix.

As for the particulars: Each match has AIA officials acting as scorekeepers, and each school is permitted 12 players, which includes two alternates. Five doubles teams compete against each other, and the season will culminate with an April 14 state championship.

Scottsdale Prep (Scottsdale, Ariz.) coach Nathan McClallen said this year’s schedule was revised several times because clubs kept dropping out.

“But everyone I’ve talked to is focused on adding the sport for next year,” he said. “It seems like it will be much bigger next year. I’m glad we got in on the ground floor. We are going to be in a position where we can beat bigger schools next year because we know how.”

This year’s historic first matches were 5-0 victories for Scottsdale Prep over Westwind (Phoenix) and Fountain Hills (Ariz.) over Valley Vista (Surprise, Ariz.). Xavier (Phoenix), the fifth team competing this season, had a bye on opening day.

McClallen said his team gets credit for the first victory in Arizona history.

“The two matches were going on at the same, and ours finished first,” he said. “I’m really glad our girls got this opportunity.”

McClallen said Westwind only had three duos and had to forfeit the other two matches.

Valley Vista coach Tonya Lee said she has just nine players, which means she has to forfeit one match each time out. She had 42 players in her JV and varsity indoor programs, but many of those girls are now playing softball or running track.

But the girls who did come out were thrilled, Lee said.

“The girls were giddy,” she said. “Everyone knew we were part of history.

“We’re more of a lower-income school. Many of my girls can’t afford to play club volleyball. Sand volleyball gives them another opportunity to earn a college scholarship.”

Lee said she thinks the sport will grow to 18 to 24 teams in Arizona next year.

McClallen, who has a full team at Scottsdale, said adding sand volleyball came at the expense of fielding a softball program this season.

“We chose volleyball, partly because our athletic director (Brent Demmitt) is a former beach volleyball player,” McClallen said. “But the girls seem to love it, too.”

Scottsdale’s top duo consists of sophomores Sydney Bell and Smith. But it was the No. 2 team of senior Ellen Munsil and freshman Morgan Nelson that scored Scottsdale’s only win in a 4-1 Week 2 loss to Xavier. The duo overcame match point to win 12-21, 23-21, 16-14.

“That was a massive upset,” McClallen said. “Xavier is using players from its indoor team, which ranked 35th in the nation (in the final POWERADE FAB 50 poll). But that just proves that you can have an incredible indoor team, and it’s completely different on sand.

“To me, sand volleyball is about being athletic and improvising. It’s not quite as technical as indoor. It will give a small school like us a chance.”

No matter who wins, Scottsdale players such as Bell and Stephanie Prince said sand volleyball is just a lot of fun.

Like all the Scottsdale players, neither had any experience playing on sand, but they still enjoyed the game.

“It doesn’t hurt as much to dive for a ball -- that’s a plus,” Bell said. “It’s a little harder to get up, and it’s harder to run on the sand. You need strong legs and quickness.

“It’s an intense sport. You have more responsibility because there are only two players and a lot of court to cover.”

Bell added that her bond with Smith, her usual partner, has grown because of the sport. She also enjoys the self-reliance the sport forces on players -- coaches are only allowed to talk to their players during the one-per-match timeouts.

Prince, whose younger sister has played softball, said sand volleyball is the much better choice for a spring sport.

“One of the things my sister doesn’t like about softball is that she feels she is always in the dugout,” Prince said. “In sand volleyball, you are much more involved and get to touch the ball on every play.

“I know some girls at other schools are jealous that we have a (sand volleyball) team and they don’t. But now that we’ve made history, I think a lot more teams will play next year.”