GULF SHORES, Ala. – In a weekend full of beach volleyball, eyes turn toward the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship and the crop of the sports' future stars.
Navigating beach volleyball these days can be a confusing and exciting experience. New opportunities are appearing more and more at the junior level, and for professionals, the landscape is ever evolving. But the trends are consistently proving one thing true: the sport is growing.
There is no denying that the NCAA sponsoring beach volleyball will vastly improve USA's pipeline and as Olympic gold medalist Dain Blanton put it, "no one else has this kind of a feeder system in place."
That feeder system is 65 schools strong at the collegiate level and the fastest growing female participatory high school sport in the nation.
"Having women's beach volleyball as an NCAA sport, you have this platform that there is an avenue of success. I've talked to a lot of young players, now they're making decisions between playing indoor or beach. It's equal opportunity and if you're good enough, you can get a scholarship to play somewhere. It's a trickledown effect," explained Blanton. "Now high schools are offering beach volleyball, and junior high. Everyone is preparing to try to get to college. The training and formal system of going through USAV and playing in college, all that gives you a boost that I didn't have coming up. You're going to see this influx of such great athletes. I see the playing field becoming more even because there are more players, more programs and more training."
That trajectory from middle schools, high schools, to now college, is heading to a larger pool for USA's national teams. Indoor has benefited from it for years, as have other Olympic sports. Of the U.S. teams that competed in the Rio Olympics, only seven sports had 100-percent of its athletes with college participation - both indoor men's and women's volleyball included. In total, 439 of the 558 American Olympians in Rio participated in collegiate sports. Now beach volleyball is getting its first chance to field a beach NCAA student-athlete, during the 2020 Olympics.
"You will see the dividends kicking in," Blanton added. "The women's game, we're going to see it skyrocket in the next few years. Not only in the level of play, but in popularity. There are so many girls playing sports that need mentors to look up to and what a perfectly suited sport for women."
One of those role models is Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volleyball Olympian ever. On the opening day of this years' NCAA Championship, she said it gives her "hope for Team USA, for beach as a professional sport. For these girls to get the opportunity to play a collegiate sport, to be a student-athlete, those are two powerful things."
She's not the only one that believes that. But more than believing it, people are living it and its driving them to strive for more. USAV chronicled a beach program in Ohio earlier this year, and like the NCAA and the Kerri's of the world, they're advocating for the beach volleyball pipeline for their youth.
"Part of me is amazed it's been incorporated so quickly. But the other part of me is like, 'No. Our sport deserves this,'" said Walsh Jennings. "Our sport is in such high demand. I'm so grateful [the NCAA] is part of the programming because the opportunities for the girls are endless now.
"Whether it’s the AVP, NVL, the USAV pipeline - which these girls are probably already in - I believe the NCAA programming is giving them the best preparation possible to become professional. Most of the current professional athletes didn't have this," Walsh Jennings continued. "These girls basically have a leg up. They're being coached by Olympians and world class coaches, that's a big deal. Coaching is a huge part of it."
At the NCAA Championship this year, the coaches are an all-star lineup in and of itself. There are three Olympians, eight that played beach volleyball professionally, and many imbedded in USA Volleyball's high performance programming. To say the least, they get it. They understand the landscape of the professional game and the gem of opportunity that is playing the sport as a student-athlete. Though they didn't have beach as an option when they were in school, their guidance is another linchpin to how the sport is shaping today.
"Relationships are really important in life. If you're coming from a collegiate program, you already have trusted advisors that you've been through life with," said Walsh Jennings. "These girls are on a four-year journey to try to win a national championship, with a coaching staff and everyone along the way. You look at how NCAA indoor volleyball has serviced the world, they're global athletes; they have a place to play. Some athletes are making a million bucks playing indoor volleyball for nine months and that's beautiful. I would love to get the beach game that way."
"I look at the player side a lot and I bring that to the girls here at USC," said Blanton, who is in his third year as a volunteer coach with the Trojans. "I know what it takes for to get you ready, then you give them that information and they balance it with what works for them. They have a reference point, rather than stumbling by themselves. You provide them with information so they can jump over the pitfalls that you might go through if you don't have the knowledge. Some of our athletes are planning to play professionally, and it's cool to be able to talk about the next level and the things that are going to be thrown at them. All that experience, when you're coaching someone, you can give them that knowledge."
In the sport today, the "next level" might be a newcomer to the game in middle school, looking to try out for high school. It might be a high school junior prepping to make a run for a college scholarship in one year. Or it could be like the many athletes here at the NCAA Championship, at an elite level already and ready to play professionally in the U.S. and internationally.
"Events like this, growing the sport, keep us relevant in the eye of the public" added Walsh Jennings. "Sometimes people forget we exist. NCAA Beach Volleyball says we're going to be here forever. We have to grow the game, get it in front of people, invite people to come see it. Once people see it, they fall in love."
The club in Ohio, the NCAA, and coaches like Blanton are doing their part to open doors for the sport. As players and fans, when you see the game through the opening door, you really can't help but fall in love with it.
MAY 5 | NCAA Championship Day 1 | CLICK FOR MORE NCAA INFORMATION
At the first day of the NCAA Beach Championship, USC and Pepperdine remain in the winner's bracket, meeting on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on TruTV. Vying to stay alive in the elimination bracket are UCLA vs Florida State (2 p.m. ET) and LSU vs Hawaii (3:10 p.m. ET). Click here for watch links and tournament information.