What do you do when you can’t get to the beach to play volleyball? Well, just bring the beach to you; or at least to the Causeway.
Tropics Bar and Grill, located at 5872 Battleship Parkway in Spanish Fort, is now home to a three new regulation beach volleyball courts, with room for two more courts in the future. The beautiful white sand, brought in from the Gulf, shines at the night under stadium lights.
The inspiration behind this project is Weston Hawkins, a Connecticut native who is a naval architect at Austal USA Shipbuilding. Weston began his indoor volleyball career at Trumbull High School during his junior year. Later, while attending the Maritime College in New York, he played volleyball on the school’s club team.
It was not until he had move to Mobile that he played his first beach volleyball tournament at the Emerald Coast Beach Volleyball Week in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and he was hooked.
“It was so much fun,” Hawkins said. “Everyone was enjoying themselves. It was really a sport I could keep enjoying throughout my life.”
With the drive to the Gulf being too long for convenient action, Hawkins and some friends began playing at the two beach volleyball courts set for up for intramural leagues at the University of South Alabama.
“We started a page on Facebook, and got a handful of people who wanted to play,” he said. “Then we got it up to about 50 to 60 people.”
“We ran a tournament about two years ago, and it did well. The next year, we did about 30 to 40 events. It was men and women one day, and co-ed the next day. But it wasn’t long before we got so big that the school took notice and we were asked to find a new location to play.”
This was a problem because there were no other courts in town.
While stopping at the Tropics location last year, he began looking at the patch of land located adjacent to the Causeway and the Tensaw River. It was then he pictured a set of beach volleyball courts.
He pitched his idea to the owners, Johnny and Julian Littleton, who were not sure if Hawkins was serious. Five days later, he brought them a computer-aided layout design of the project. The father and son gave him the OK to seek the permits.
That, it turns out, was another story. Because of its location next to the river and the need for bulkheads, Hawkins had to get permission from the Spanish Fort Planning Commission, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, plus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Once all the permits were granted in October 2013, work began in January. When the bulkheads were built, 20 feet of land was reclaimed from the swamps. Once the ground was leveled and the dimensions laid out, the beach sand was brought in from RLF Baldwin Operations of Foley.
Community members have volunteered to do much of the work, including building fences and hanging nets that keep the balls from ending up on the highway or in an alligator’s jaws. Funds were only available to complete the current three courts. Hawkins said once they raise more money after a few tournaments and leagues, they hope to add the final two courts. This would allow them to host larger regional events.
“Beach volleyball is huge along the Gulf Coast,” Hawkins said. “There is one place in Kenner (Louisiana) that has 24 courts. Their original facility in Slidell (Louisiana) is what inspired Tropics Volleyball’s beginnings. There are also a lot of places in Florida to play.”
Taking advantage of the new facility is the Tropics Volleyball Juniors Club. The program started in April, and continues through July.
“Before we were only focused on adults playing, but this is a grassroots campaign to introduce the sport to a younger group,” Weston said. “We have about 20 girls, and we’re off to a good start.”
Directing the team is Gretchen Boykin, the current head coach at Spanish Fort High School and a former coach at Spring Hill College and McGill-Toolen Catholic High School. The fitness coach is LaJuan Black, a former player at Troy University. Assistant coaches are Meredith Donald and Beth Vincent.
Also playing a key role is Ashley Nardi, Weston’s girlfriend. “She doesn’t play, but she is our business manager,” he said. “Getting all these tournaments organized is not my forte, so she does a lot to keep it going.”
Members of the Tropics youth team are all registered with the USA Volleyball organization, and practice on Monday and Wednesday nights. The squad has hosted several events this year, but also has played in Gulf Shores; Waveland, Miss.; and in Florida at Fort Walton Beach and Panama City. The teams are composed of two players each and are divided by age groups.
It’s not just the children having fun, though. There are adult leagues that begin June 18 and registration is still open.
“We have league games on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” Hawkins said. “It’s four-on-four co-ed teams. It’s a great chance for beginners to try something new.”
Also planned are such events as tournaments where players show up in costumes. Teams are drawn at random and the action goes on until midnight.
“We have leagues for everyone, from beginners to skilled players to people just looking for a fun way to stay fit,” Weston said. “Come and watch us play, it’s not long until you come back to join us on the sand!”
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