Heading to Gulf Shores has been a rite of passage for college students over the years. But a spring break pilgrimage won’t be the only reason this year, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s inaugural Beach Volleyball Championship takes place at the Gulf Shores Public Beach facility May 6-8.

As the newest NCAA playoff, it will also be the organization’s 90th sanctioned sport. Half of these national tournaments are focused on women’s sports.

Gulf Shores was the logical choice for the NCAA, as it has hosted the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Collegiate Sand Championships since 2012. The University of Southern California won the team and pairs competition last year.

“We are extremely excited to have been awarded the bid for the inaugural NCAA Women’s Beach Volleyball Championship,” Beth Gendler, vice president of sales for the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission, told Lagniappe. “We know we were up against some fierce competition with other destinations and venues. We feel our experience the past four years in hosting and producing the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball Championships put us in the front of the pack and ultimately resulted in receiving the bid for 2016 and 2017.

(Photo | Courtesy of AVCA) Teams compete in the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Collegiate Sand Championships in Gulf Shores in 2014, the site of the inaugural NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship scheduled in May.

(Photo | Courtesy of AVCA) Teams compete in the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Collegiate Sand Championships in Gulf Shores in 2014, the site of the inaugural NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship scheduled in May.

“We hope to become the permanent home for this event and look forward to showing off our beautiful beaches on national television during this year’s championship.”

Serving as the host team is the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Spring Hill College is preparing to field a beach volleyball team for the second season, but it wasn’t eligible to host. The Lady Badgers are still in the transitional period of moving from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to the NCAA.

“Having the beach championships here in the past was actually a huge part of our move to adding the sport at Spring Hill,” legendary head coach Dr. Peggy Martin said. “We are thrilled the official championship will return to our beautiful beach.

“The organizers in Gulf Shores have done such a tremendous job in the past. I really believe it was a no-brainer to award the first two NCAA Championships to them.”

Martin, a member of both the AVCA and the Mobile sports halls of fame, is one of only two collegiate volleyball coaches to reach 1,200 wins at any level of competition. She said the Spring Hill staff has helped run the previous tournaments in Gulf Shores.

“The NCAA requires a host school be a full member of the NCAA,” said Martin, who holds a doctorate in physical education from Indiana University. “UAB is the only other school in Alabama that sponsors beach volleyball besides Spring Hill. For Spring Hill, it will be a recruiting gem for our beach program.”

The Lady Badgers will open their season March 4 at the Stetson Spring Break Tournament in DeLand, Florida. They will host UAB for their first-ever home match March 8 at the new Jim and Betty Walsh Beach Volleyball Facility.

The NCAA has already awarded Gulf Shores the second national tournament, set for May 5-7, 2017.

“We are thrilled to bring the very first NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship to Gulf Shores,” said Marilyn Moniz-Kaho’ohanohano, chair of the Beach Volleyball Committee and associate athletics director for the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Gulf Shores provides a location where the sport originated — oceanside — and will provide a great experience for our student-athletes.”

The Gulf Shores tourney will have an eight-team bracket that will be played in a double-elimination format. Teams will consist of five pairs of female student-athletes.

With 47 sponsoring schools, beach volleyball is the fastest-growing NCAA sport. After being placed on the list of emerging sports for women in 2009, beach volleyball is the fifth sport to advance from the program.
For more information on the championship, log on to www.NCAA.com/sports/beach-volleyball.

USSA honors top athletes of 2015
The United States Sports Academy in Daphne has announced its annual male and female Athletes of the Year for 2015. They are New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and tennis great Serena Williams.

Brady was recognized for his Super Bowl record 37 completions, including four touchdowns, in leading the Patriots to their fourth NFL championship in January. Currently tied with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most Super Bowl wins at quarterback, Brady has led his team into the playoffs again this season.

Williams kept her No. 1 global ranking by winning three major titles in 2015. This brings her career mark to 21 Grand Slam crowns, which is one short of Steffi Graf’s modern-day record.

This is the 31st year USSA has presented the Athlete of the Year. It is the culmination of a monthly award program, which included 12 men and 12 women from nine countries. Winners were chosen through online public balloting during December.

The runners-up were 2015 Masters golf champion Jordan Spieth and runner Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, who broke a 22-year world record in the 1,500 meters in Monaco and later added the world championship in China.

Gentlemen, start your engines
It seems the ARCA racing series just completed its season, but testing at Daytona International Speedway will take place this Friday and Saturday. Team DK-LOK from Mobile will be there with a new Ilmore high-performance engine.

“We are really excited about our first Ilmore,” said Thomas “Moose” Praytor, who finished eighth in the overall drivers’ standings last season. “We got behind on the Superspeedways last year, and with a lot of help from Carlos and Amanda Lira and all the guys at Lira Motorsports, we won’t be lacking horsepower at Daytona and Talladega.”

Praytor admitted the short off-season has been a busy one.

“I think we took about three days off after Kansas and we’ve been hard at it,” he said. “We’ve been going through last year’s cars, building motors, adding new cars while building up inventory for the 2016 campaign.”

The Lucas Oil 200 will open the ARCA season in Daytona Feb. 13. Fairhope’s Grant Enfinger won last year’s race on the way to claiming the overall driving title.