Forget the beaches of Florida, California and Brazil. It is the Alabama Gulf Coast that is grabbing the attention of sand volleyball players in the recreational and collegiate ranks.
Since 2012, Gulf Shores has hosted the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s national collegiate championships. Last year, the nation’s top squads faced off at the main public beach, near the terminus of State Highway 59.
The AVCA will return to Gulf Shores once again in May for its big tournament, but in 2016 everything changes. The event will become a full-fledged NCAA championship that spring.
In January, the NCAA approved a national playoff for sand volleyball in Divisions II and III. Teams in Division I had already approved the event in October, making this the 90th NCAA championship.
Spring Hill College is still in its transition period to Division II, but that did not stop it from quickly fielding a sand volleyball team this season. Peggy Martin, the veteran coach of the Lady Badgers’ indoor volleyball squad since 2009, is leading the way.
“This is a relatively new sport, but it is going crazy across the country,” said Martin, who is a member of both the AVCA and Mobile Sports halls of fame. “We are trying to learn the sport. I have gone to clinics to learn the sand game, and pick up whatever I can from others.”
Martin has a vast amount of experience with the indoor version of volleyball. She coached the University of Central Missouri to 33 consecutive winning seasons, before returning home to Mobile and guiding SHC into several national tournaments. Performing on the sand, though, is quite different.
“When playing with just one other person, you have to cover a lot of area,” said Martin, who attended McGill-Toolen Catholic High School and later earned a doctorate at Indiana University. “The biggest difference is if you touch the ball on a block, it counts as one of your three touches. On the indoor game, the block does not count.
“You also can’t jump as high or move as quickly. It is challenge to move around in the sand.”
And while the game is played much like its counterpart in the Olympics and professional leagues, there is one marked difference at SHC. “Our players are not wearing bikinis,” said Martin, well respectful of Jesuit school traditions.
Martin had several of her indoor players help to form the first roster. Senior middle hitter Megan Haber of Lillian (Foley High) and junior setter/defensive specialist Mallory Raulerson of Mobile (McGill-Toolen) are serving as the No. 1 pair for the Sandy Badgers (as they are called). Other local players are freshmen defensive specialist Catherine Milwee (St. Luke’s Episcopal in Mobile) and middle hitter Katelyn Bobinger (McGill-Toolen).
“We have a nice mix,” Martin said. “The majority of our indoor players, but we have two other regular students who came out for the team. I hope in the future our roster will be half and half.”
The Sandy Badgers saw their first action in a round-robin scrimmage with Faulkner University at the newly expanded volleyball facility at Tropics on the Causeway. The Montgomery-based school only offers an indoor team, but their players wanted to try the outside version.
“The set-up was great at Tropics,” said Martin, who has Ricky Helldoerfer as her assistant coach. “We hope to host some tournaments in the future there.”
Until then, SHC is playing its entire season on the road. The campaign started off with a bang, defeating the University of New Orleans 5-0. The wins against more experienced teams (such as Tulane, LSU, Louisiana-Monroe) have been hard to come by. Their season wraps up April 18-19 with the Battle on the Bayou in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“This is a great thing for Spring Hill and Mobile,” Martin said. “With all the beaches around, you use what God has given to us. This gives these women another opportunity to compete.
“The kids are very excited. This is a new adventure, and we hope it will keep going.”
Volleyball growing on the Causeway
Tropics Bar and Grill, located at 5872 Battleship Parkway in Spanish Fort, was featured in this column last year when its volleyball facility opened with three courts. Featuring white sand brought in from the Gulf, the complex now features five courts and lighting, so games can carry on past sunset.
“We worked all year and over the winter,” said Weston Hawkins, the owner and director of Tropics Volleyball. “We added 150 feet of seawall. We ended up putting the final touches on 10 minutes before the leagues started.”
Hawkins said the original plan was for eight courts, but there was not enough room because of state property right-of-way areas along the Causeway. Future plans could include courts on the eastern side of the restaurant.
He said the scrimmage between Spring Hill and Faulkner was a treat, and they hope to have a full tournament next year with schools such as LSU and UAB. Until then, he has plenty of recreational events to keep him busy.
Two-on-two leagues got going in February. The next league started this week with four-on-four co-ed teams. Games will be Tuesday through Thursday nights. Hawkins said up to 40 teams could play each night.
Saturdays offer adult tourneys, with a wide variety of formats. Sundays are set aside for anyone to try the courts, which almost four dozens participants did on a recent outing.
Hawkins is also excited about the juniors program that starts April 6 and goes through Aug. 2. The players will travel to USA Volleyball’s Junior Beach Tour events and Gulf Region tournaments, while also hosting tournaments at Tropics. Some of the JBT events are in Texas, Georgia, Florida and Virginia.
“The sport is really growing,” Hawkins said. “The beach aspect really compliments indoor programs. This is a fun easy sport to pick up and do. I am sure it will stick around and be something big.”
To learn more about the Spring Hill program, visit www.shcbadgers.com or call 251-380-3485. Information on the local recreational leagues can be found at www.tropicsvolleyball.com or by calling 203-913-1258.