After winning their third-straight Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings are practically household names.
Their route to the podium started indoors many years ago as they played high school, club and collegiate volleyball. However, for the next generation of volleyball players, the route to the sand might not include any hardwood.
That foothold in the sand began last spring when the Arizona Interscholastic Association's Executive Board voted to give girls a two-year sand volleyball pilot program, the first introduction of the sport at the high school level.
The inaugural season ended with Xavier College Prep (Phoenix)
defeating Fountain Hills (Ariz.)
5-0 at Victory Lanes Sports Park in Glendale, Ariz. It might not have drawn the crowd that the Xavier indoor team drew at the state finals on Nov. 6, but it was a "first ever" title in Arizona.
"The first year went extremely well and we're expecting 14 to 15 more teams next spring," said David Hines, who oversees sand volleyball in Arizona as tournament coordinator for the AIA.
Sand pioneers Xavier, Fountain Hills, Valley Vista (Surprise, Ariz.)
, Westwind Prep Academy (Phoenix)
and Scottsdale Preparatory Academy (Ariz.)
will be joined this year by Desert Edge (Goodyear, Ariz.)
, St. Mary's (Phoenix)
, North Pointe Prep (Phoenix)
, Phoenix Christian
and Verrado (Buckeye)
, plus possibly Agua Fria (Avondale, Ariz.)
, Millennium (Goodyear, Ariz.)
, Shadow Ridge (Surprise, Ariz.)
and Willow Canyon (Surprise, Ariz.)
Hines said he witnessed the initial contests in February, then the championship match 10 weeks later.
"There was great improvement. The first games were a little hard to watch, but at the end of the year tournament, they did very well and it was very competitive," said Hines.
According to Hines, the AIA's executive board will meet within the next week to discuss sand volleyball's future at the high school level in Arizona.
He noted that the AIA approved the pilot program for two reasons:
- A presentation from the Arizona Region of USA Volleyball;
- To look at how sand volleyball as another school sport would help with Title IX concerns.
"We're always looking for ways to add sports for girls," said Hines. "It (sand volleyball) gives another opportunity for kids to play."
He noted some of the advantages included potential college scholarships, as well as the belief that sand volleyball can improve a player's indoor volleyball game.
"Skill development is a big advantage to sand volleyball," said Hines. "With only two players moving it is physically tougher and they have to be able to get to balls that they wouldn't normally go after with a six-person game. It's like a new offseason skill development."
Hines also said that with two-player teams, big schools that "notoriously" have an advantage don't necessarily have that advantage in the sand. In the pilot program, each varsity consists of 12 players making up five teams and two alternates.
"Xavier has about 1,200 students, but we had some schools with twice that and others with 300-400 enrollment," said Hines.
The top duo was Xavier's Abby Hornacek and Mia Teilborg. Teilborg plays outside hitter for Xavier's indoor team that finished No. 2 in Arizona this year.
Hornacek, daughter of former NBA standout Jeff Hornacek, is on a sand volleyball scholarship at the University of Southern California. She originally committed to Kansas on an indoor full ride, but once the sand opportunity arose, she went to USC.
Hornacek isn't alone in choosing sand over hardwood. Valencia (Calif.)
seniors Delaney Knudsen (Pepperdine) and Sierra Sanchez (Florida State) made verbal commitments this past summer for college sand volleyball teams.
"I just love volleyball, especially playing in the sand," said Taylor Cawthorne, a sophomore at Valley Vista (Surprise, Ariz.), one of Arizona's pioneering sand teams. "Indoors I'm a libero. I'm short (5-2), but quick and get to play the indoor court. I don't have a set position and I get to do everything. It opens up so many opportunities for me."
Cawthorne also noted that she is "definitely more tired" after playing a match in the sand as compared to the hardwood. If she had to choose between court and sand, it would be sand.
Teammate Asha Hart said she loves both and feels each helps the other.
"Sand certainly makes my indoor game better," said Hart, a 5-7 setter for VVHS's indoor team. "Moving in the sand makes you much quicker for indoors and really improves your vertical (jump)."
Hart said her goal is to play collegiately - indoors.
"I love all aspects of sand volleyball, but really like the six-player team aspect of the indoor game," said Hart.
"This is very exciting. We've been watching it for so many years and dreaming about it. Now, we're getting that opportunity to play competitively," said Tonya Lee, who coached Valley Vista last spring. "It's also giving our girls another opportunity to play a sport. We've been watching it in the Olympics and wondering when it's going to be our chance."
Lee had a dozen players last year, but expects as many as twice that this year.
"As we are still a pilot program it will be varsity teams only, so I'm likely going to have to make cuts this year."
She expects 75 percent of the girls who try out for sand will be from her indoor program. In addition to "getting a really good tan," Lee said, "It really helps the girls. They get faster and their vertical improves dramatically. And their court awareness improves. It's all on them because it's just the two of them."
State indoor champion Horizon's top player, Nikki Hess, has offers to play both indoor and outdoor in college. Hess was a first team All-State player this season.
Hines said most of the requirements for sand volleyball (depth of sand, court dimensions and net height) are the same as Olympic beach volleyball. However, unlike beach volleyball, high school sand volleyball uniforms are the same as indoor, unlike the two-piece suits worn by Walsh-Jennings and May-Treanor in winning the Olympic gold in London.
"The girls cannot wear bathing suits," said Lee. "They must be modest with full spandex shorts and no midriff showing. The focus was on sport."
As exciting as it has been for players and coaches during the pilot program, sand volleyball has its adversaries. Hines said concerns centered on costs, facilities and pulling athletes from other sports to field sand volleyball rosters.
As for the schools that don't have sand courts, Hines said, "If a school can get to a park and get the net to proper height and pad poles, we can play the game. It might not be pristine, but it's an opportunity to play."
The addition also gives school districts another option for Title IX compliance, an issue with which many districts in Arizona are still struggling.
Schools in Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico and California have formed beach volleyball club leagues and are keeping a watchful eye on the development of the program in Arizona.
"I would encourage anyone to play," said Hart. "We are blessed to have this wonderful opportunity."