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Brian Mull | | October 3, 2015

Starting in the sand: UNCW takes a shot at beach volleyball

UNCW indoor volleyball is 11-3 so far during the 2015 season

During the last three or four years, UNC Wilmington volleyball coach Amy Bambenek started a folder and filled it with information on area Division I beach volleyball programs. Her data included projected costs, scheduling notes, roster sizes, any nugget she thought might be relevant. About once a year during a regular meeting with athletic director Jimmy Bass she’d remind him that if he ever needed another sport for females, beach volleyball was ideal for the UNCW campus.

The sport, school and city were bound to unite eventually.

In six seasons Bambenek had done her part to stimulate the program and culture around the sport. She'd lifted indoor volleyball from perennial doormat to championship contender in the Colonial Athletic Association. She’d led the Seahawks to consecutive 20-win seasons and conference tournament appearances, a first in program history. Games on campus in renovated Hanover Hall that used to be a friends and family gathering now featured raucous standing room only crowds. 

The cozy yet growing campus, home to roughly 13,000 undergraduates, is six miles from Wrightsville Beach in the southeastern corner of North Carolina. The area plays host to numerous marathons and triathlons, is populated with fit, active people. Adults, teens, people of every age and skill level play volleyball on sand courts in organized leagues throughout the year around Wilmington. Casual games are played on courts erected one good serve from the Atlantic Ocean.

With community support certain, Bambenek also believed a beach team would help her attract stronger recruits for her indoor program, perhaps push it closer to meeting the goal she and Bass shared: to compete in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.

The first hint that Bambenek’s dream might become reality occurred in Dec. 2014 when Bass announced that the university was eliminating its track and cross country programs due to budget restraints, but would add beach volleyball to satisfy Title IX requirements. The decision on the athletic department's future portfolio lingered through the winter and spring. Ultimately, private donations saved the running programs. Bambenek received word in late April that the Seahawks were set to serve and spike in sand in the spring of 2016. UNCW became the first of the 18 Division I schools in North Carolina to have beach volleyball. 

“We are very much committed to providing opportunities for female student-athletes,” Bass said in a recent interview. “I think that Wilmington can be a terrific community and I’d like to think we might be the very best community on the East Coast for Division I beach volleyball in the very near future.”

Beach volleyball has been an official Olympic sport since 1996 and the source of its popularity in the United States can largely be traced to one dynamic team: three-time Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May Treanor. Recognizing that surge in interest the NCAA in 2009 put beach volleyball on the list for emerging sports for women. After several years of unofficial championships the first NCAA championship will be held this spring with a winner determined via an eight-team double-elimination bracket. Each school sends five pairs, and much like tennis, the No. 1 seeded team plays the opposing No. 1 seeded team and so on through the roster. A school must win three out of the five pairs matchups to claim the match.

Beach volleyball is not only the NCAA’s newest championship, but also its fastest growing sport.  At the beginning of the calendar year, 50 Division I colleges and universities sponsored a team - 10 more than the minimum required to hold a national championship - and 19 of the programs have come into existence since 2013-14.

South Carolina added beach volleyball two years ago. The Gamecocks had a 5-12 record their first season, but improved to 14-7 in 2014-15.

"One of the hallmarks for our students-athletes has been the emphasis on the ability to deal with adversity, to be versatile and adaptable and I believe that has helped us," South Carolina beach volleyball coach Moritz Moritz replied via email. "It was never as much an obstacle as it was a learning process."

Indoor volleyball competes in the fall; beach volleyball season is in the spring.

The regular season starts the first weekend in March and teams are allowed 16 competition days, over weekends in multi-team tournaments prior to the beginning of final exams at their school. One school will generally play four or five matches in one tournament and those results comprise their official won-loss record.

According to NCAA data, about 60 percent of the athletes who play beach volleyball do not compete on the indoor team. But as she recruited the last few years many prospects asked Bambenek if UNCW had beach volleyball or was likely to start it soon. She figured she lost two or three recruits to schools that had beach programs.

Because she has no experience coaching on the sand - Bambenek has never attended a college beach volleyball tournament in person -  she set out in late April to find a coach who knew the nuances of the sport and was also passionate about the indoor program.

The search landed on David Fischer, a former Stanford standout and 15-year veteran of the professional volleyball circuit who spent the previous three years starting a beach program at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

“He was exactly what we needed,” Bambenek said. “I feel like I know beach volleyball but I don’t know beach volleyball like he does. I’ll lean on his expertise when it comes to some of the training and I’ll learn from him which will be fun.”

Bambenek spoke with beach volleyball coaches at Mercer and College of Charleston and began assembling a schedule. The university added $42,000 to the operational budget and two scholarships. UNCW signed six players to play exclusively on the beach volleyball team - three freshmen, one senior and two graduate transfers. Members of the indoor team will supply the rest of the roster.

Fischer enjoys the entrepreneurial aspect of starting a program from the ground floor. He also hopes to impact the sport’s direction as it grows.

“This sport is a great opportunity for a lot of athletes who didn’t have the prototypical Division I Volleyball type body but they can still be a NCAA Division I athlete,” Fischer said. “Because it’s more of a skill sport than a sport that requires a set of physical criteria.”

He compares a skilled beach volleyball player to an expert racquetball player who might be older, slower or both but understands the intangibles:  how to read the wind, communicate with a partner and play angles to their advantage.

“They’re going to win games and they’re going to beat the talented and spry opponents on the other side of the net who think they just got unlucky,” he said.

Bambenek looks forward to watching savvy competitors thrive in beach volleyball.

“It’s more finesse and strategy. That’s something our indoor kids need. They need to understand the communication necessary.”

Coaching is also different in beach volleyball.

In indoor volleyball, Bambenek is permitted to give instructions to her team after every point. In beach volleyball she can only coach them in timeouts and during the brief intervals as they switch sides. This is a direct example of how the indoor program can benefit from the beach program.

“I like this because there are times on the indoor team when I want them to problem solve together,” she said. “In the sand, they are going to have to coach themselves.”

UNCW has tournaments on six of eight weekends in March and April although exact schedules and opponents have not been finalized. For now, the team is practicing on sand courts around campus. Bass and university officials are negotiating with area businesses such as restaurants that have multiple courts to secure a suitable location for spring beach volleyball tournaments.

Kristen Powell is a junior right side hitter on the UNCW indoor volleyball team, which has an 11-3 record this season. During the recruiting process, she asked Bambenek if the school might add beach volleyball. She doubted it would occur during her career, and is excited to have the opportunity.

“Indoor, it’s all about power,” she said. “With outdoor the fun thing is creating shots. You’re going to touch the ball at least once.”

She’s also confident the Seahawks will reach competitive speed quickly despite their inexperience playing outdoors at the DI level.

“As a team we’re very close and have great chemistry. Great athletes pick up on things quickly and we have good volleyball skills.”

UNC Wilmington beats No. 8 East Carolina to sweep season series

The Seahawks, who swept the season series for the first time since 2013, improved to 16-9 overall and 7-2 on the road.