Bill Love / Visions Unlimited
The very first seeds of a championship are planted when the Committee on Women’s Athletics formally recommends that sand volleyball, the name by which the sport was known in NCAA circles at the time, be added to the list for emerging sports for women after hearing a presentation from DeBoer. Committee members voice concerns about the beach volleyball name because they don’t want NCAA member schools to envision the sport as athletes competing in bikinis with alcoholic beverages being consumed in the stands.
The committee decides that the players will wear shorts or briefs similar to those worn in track and field, and have tank tops that cover their entire torso.
NCAA schools have already sent letters of commitment to sponsor the sport. USA Volleyball, the American Volleyball Coaches Association and the United States Olympic Committee have also sent their support for sand volleyball being placed on the list. The committee reviews data that show more than 200,000 females ages 6-17 play sand volleyball, and more than 60 percent compete exclusively in the sport rather than indoor volleyball. In spring 2008, there are more than 40 NCAA teams competing in club sand volleyball tournaments.
The emerging sports program was created to develop new opportunities for young women. It becomes clear that sand volleyball holds that potential.
“All the work started back then,” said Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano, “when Kathy DeBoer and the AVCA had the vision for beach volleyball to be a championship.”
A formal proposal is drafted to determine whether the NCAA membership is willing to add sand volleyball to the emerging sports list, effective Aug. 1, 2010. The Division I Legislative Council considers the proposal during its meeting in April 2009.
Division II adopts the proposal and Division I sends its legislation out for membership comment. Division II begins developing concepts to develop the necessary regulations for the sport, such as financial aid, playing and practice seasons, and minimum contest and participant requirements. Those legislative concepts are considered at the 2010 NCAA Convention.
Division I votes to add sand volleyball to the list of emerging sports, but the process stalls in the months leading up to the 2010 NCAA Convention when NCAA members submit more than the 30 votes required to reconsider the proposal. That move means the Division I membership will cast an override vote at the Convention, where it will take 62.5 percent of the Division I membership present for the vote to halt sand volleyball’s rise to the list of emerging sports for women.
The opposition centers on whether sand volleyball truly offers new opportunities for women or if it is only being used as a way for the vast majority of indoor players, who are already receiving grants-in-aid, to compete in both sports.
There is also some opposition from schools not located near a beach. Some voice concerns that it could negatively impact their indoor volleyball recruiting efforts if they don’t field a sand volleyball team.
“Of course, it is going to start out with indoor players who want to play beach volleyball,” DeBoer said. “When you add a water polo team, you look for people who know how to swim, so you go to the swimming team to see if they would like to try a new sport.”
Ironically, when the sport starts its first academic year as an NCAA championship sport in fall 2015, 363 of the 832 women who were on beach volleyball rosters – around 44 percent – will be playing the sport exclusively.
Those in favor of the sport understood that the beach game and the indoor game require two different skill sets. Indoor volleyball players are more specialized to their positions, while beach players must be more versatile, able to pass, set and hit.
The supporters of beach volleyball rally to make sure the sport would have the opportunity to grow. Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano even flies in from Hawaii for the Convention to vote in the sport’s favor. When results are tallied in January 2010, the override vote fails by 12 votes.
By that slim margin, the dream of one day making sand volleyball an NCAA championship survives.
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
The Division I Board of Directors adopts the sand volleyball proposal, but it delays it from being added to the emerging sports list until August 2011 so developments related to recruiting, coaching limitations, financial aid and playing and practice season can be determined.
Division II forges ahead and sets the parameters for bylaws in the sport. The rules become effective in the Division II Manual in August 2010.
Meanwhile, Division III surveys its membership and decides there is not enough interest to add the sport.
Sand volleyball becomes effective in the Division I Manual.
At this point, Gumbart and the Atlantic Sun Conference are already pushing the sport forward. The Atlantic Sun commissioner, along with the Big South, Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southern conferences, had already created a consortium called the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association for men’s swimming in 2008. After making telephone calls to schools in the southeastern part of the country – including to schools in Conference USA – he sees an opportunity to put together another consortium of schools from different leagues to form a sand volleyball conference.
“When we realized that this was going to become a sport, we wanted to be first and administratively we asked our presidents to recognize it immediately,” Gumbart said. “We are proud that Stetson is the only team that played in the first recognized Division I conference championship and the first NCAA-recognized national championship.”
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
The American Volleyball Coaches Association conducts the first of four national championships for collegiate sand volleyball, which by this point was still below the 40 varsity programs needed to become an NCAA championship.
DeBoer, the AVCA’s executive director, said she was contacted by Phillip Bryant, the commissioner of the Gulf Coast region for USA Volleyball, to see if the organization would be interested in holding its first national championship in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The AVCA took Bryant up on the offer and the south Alabama community left a strong impression that eventually led to it being named the host site for the sport’s first NCAA championship.
The area also hosts a junior beach volleyball event at the same time, drawing hundreds of teams and giving girls the chance to see that they could set goals to play at the collegiate level in the future.
“It was always our hope that beach volleyball would become a sanctioned NCAA championship,” said Beth Gendler, the vice president of sales for the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Sports Commission. “We hoped they would want to come here and grant us the bid when the time came.”
After years of steady growth, beach volleyball teams reach a critical mark: They have met the minimum of 40 varsity teams, making the sport eligible to become an NCAA championship.
Divisions II and III vote to approve the sport, making beach volleyball the fastest to elevate from the emerging sports list to earn championship status.
“It was a moment to celebrate,” said Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano. “This is an opportunity to give girls a chance to dream about being able to get a scholarship, to go to college. For the more elite and dedicated player, it could be a step into becoming a professional beach volleyball player and playing in the Olympics.”
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
The process begins to pick a sports administrator in the NCAA national office’s championships and alliances group, who will be the sport’s primary liaison.
Kristin Fasbender, a director and 17-year veteran of the championships group, is given the task of putting together the NCAA’s 90th championship.
Fasbender, who also is the sport manager for the Division I Women’s Volleyball and the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championships, is excited to take on the opportunity to develop an NCAA championship from scratch.
“It is one of the things I hadn’t done in my career,” said Fasbender, who competed in track at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “We had to do some discussions to see if schedules would work. I wanted the opportunity if it were available. ”
Each of the 90 NCAA championships has a primary sport manager, whose job is to ensure that things run smoothly and give the players, coaches and fans the best experience possible. Those national office sports managers also work with a committee that is charged with selecting teams that will participate in the championship and seeding the bracket.
Conferences submit names to the Division I Nominating Committee, which selects the first NCAA Sand Volleyball Committee. Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano and Gumbart are joined by Fran Flory, women’s indoor and beach volleyball coach at Louisiana State University; Donna Heinel, senior associate athletics director at Southern California; Kelcey Roegiers-Jensen, associate athletics director at Georgia State University; and Nina Matthies, beach volleyball coach at Pepperdine University.
“In general, there was excitement across the board for a new sport,” Fasbender said. “I’ve worked across 13 sports and all three divisions. But it doesn’t happen very often that we have a new championship or a new sport.”
As the sport approaches its first season as an NCAA championship, its newly formed committee makes a decision to officially change the sport’s name from sand to beach volleyball. That is what the sport is known as at the international and professional levels around the world.
A month later, the committee makes its decision to name Gulf Shores as the first site for the championship. NCAA rules say a member school or institution has to be the host of the event, so Gendler made a phone call to Corey Bray, the associate athletics director of compliance at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“I served on the AVCA sand volleyball selection championship committee,” said Bray, whose school hosted Florida State in the first NCAA sand volleyball match when it started as an emerging sport in 2012. “Normally, you get a couple of years of notice by the time the committee makes a site selection and you can plan accordingly. We had a few months. Thankfully, Gulf Shores had done all this before, and it helped us putting together the bid. They knew what they had already done and what would work.”
While Gulf Shores is confident in their bid, the nerves are still present.
“When Kristin (Fasbender) called, I asked, ‘Are you calling with good news?’” said Gendler, who served as the co-tournament director with Bray. “When they came here on a site visit last January, all you are looking at is the sandy beach. We literally can make the event look any way they want it to look.”
For the inaugural championship, five competition courts and three practice courts are set up. A video board, which keeps the fans up to date on the scores from each court, is also visible from any spot in the venue.
Gulf Shores has already been tabbed to host the 2017 championship, but it will have to go through another bid cycle this fall to secure any championships beyond that.
“Our goal was to have the committee leave here thinking, ‘Why would we go anywhere else?’” Bray said.
Justin Tafoya / NCAA Photos
The Beach Volleyball Committee holds its conference call to select the eight teams that will compete in the championship.
It’s a National Collegiate Championship, open to schools in all three NCAA divisions. And there are no automatic qualifiers in the field. So the committee is tasked with picking three teams from the western part of the country and three from the East. The remaining two teams are at-large selections. The committee uses data from a score-reporting system that contains information such as in-region records, records against common opponents and head-to-head results, among others.
When all the discussions end, Southern California and Florida State are joined by Stetson, Hawaii, UCLA, Pepperdine, Arizona and Georgia State in the postseason bracket.
The eight teams are seeded in a double-elimination format. Each team plays five pairs of players; the first team to win three matches wins the dual. The matches consist of three sets, with the first two played to 21 points and a third to 15.
With the aid of the scoreboard, the event almost carries the feel of golf’s Ryder Cup or Solheim Cup competitions as fans easily roam to key matches. Twice on the first day of the championship, a dual tied 2-2 sees the deciding set of the final match played while surrounded by 1,500 engaged fans.
Music plays the entire time the duals are being played. The atmosphere is festive.
“The committee realizes that beach volleyball has its own rhythm,” Gumbart said. “We are very aware of that and are invested in protecting beach volleyball’s tradition. We want to make sure this sport grows in the beach atmosphere.”
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
Someone is going to be among the first group of players who compete for the initial NCAA beach volleyball championship.
That fact is not lost on the participants, who will look back on Mother’s Day weekend in 2016 and reminisce about the time they set the championship’s foundation.
“It is really cool when you think about being a part of history in a sport,” said Southern California senior Alexa Strange, who was on the No. 2 pairs for the Trojans. “Thirty years from now, girls will be wearing bikinis when they play and will be looking back at us saying, ‘What were they wearing back then?’ We’ll be the OG (original gangsters) players of the sport. That’s awesome when you think about it that way.”
Like Strange, UCLA’s Kamila Tan played in the AVCA national tournament in 2015. But this year, she feels the weight of significance in being a part of an official NCAA event.
“It is a privilege to be here,” said Tan, whose Bruins team finished third. “We looked at the setup when we arrived and you could feel the vibe.”
Last year, Tan only competed in the AVCA’s pairs competition, but not the team-dual format.
“It was all about me, my partner and my coach,” Tan said. “That’s who we were representing. Now, I have a whole team I’m a part of and representing. I don’t want to say it is added pressure, but I’m playing for something so much bigger than myself.”
Strange added: “There are times when we might blow a set, but (Southern California’s) other teams will come through. The team aspect is so cool. You can lose your match, but the team can still get the win.”
Bruins beach volleyball coach Stein Metzger has grown to like the team format over the traditional individual pairs competition.
“I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first about the team aspect of this,” said Metzger, who played professionally around the world for 13 years. “But I’ve totally fallen in love with it. You miss the team aspect of indoor volleyball when you play on the beach. This format brings that to beach volleyball.”
Justin Tafoya / NCAA Photos
Southern California caps its impressive run through the tournament by downing top-seeded Florida State, which beat the Trojans in Los Angeles earlier in the season.
All of Southern California’s players gave up the indoor game to focus entirely on beach volleyball. Most were highly ranked indoor volleyball prospects coming out of high school but chose to follow their passion of playing the sport in the sand.
“A lot of the women on my team are juniors and are already pioneers,” said Southern California coach Anna Collier, an alum of the school, whose team capped its championship season with a 34-2 record. “A lot of them made the decision in 2012 to leave indoor volleyball. They will be allowing younger girls to say it is OK to walk away from indoor volleyball and play beach, if that is where your passion is.”
About two-thirds of Metzger’s UCLA team plays beach volleyball exclusively. And he expects that number to increase in coming years.
Ninety percent of the players on the eight teams at the finals site play only beach volleyball now.
“It is getting to the point where if you’re not playing both at a younger age, you won’t have a chance in college to play both indoor and beach,” Metzger said. “You can’t play indoor volleyball in college and just show up and be successful playing beach. There are a few exceptions, but that is what we are seeing these days.
DeBoer said there are currently around 430,000 girls playing indoor volleyball in high school, so there is room to keep populating both sports.
“We won’t be cannibalizing our own space,” DeBoer said. “Everyone in the NCAA should be proud of this event. I’m proud of the AVCA championship we did the last four years, but I wanted this championship to look like it is really big, and it did.
“This was legit. This was big time.”