GULF SHORES, Ala. – We hit the sand at the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship to talk to people about the sport, the involvement of the NCAA and finding opportunities in their community.
Beach volleyball isn't a new sport by any means, but there is an enthusiasm like it's a new kid on the block. The NCAA signed a contract for the Beach Volleyball Championship to be hosted in Gulf Shores, Alabama, through 2020 and when you're on site you immediately notice why.
The opening day of 2017 boasted over 1,900 fans in attendance and every single match was either live streamed or on TV. There's a mix of casual fans, school super-fans and youth players walking along Gulf Shores Public Beach. USA Volleyball caught up with a few to talk about their experiences in the sport.
Anne Marie Anderson, on-air broadcaster for multiple collegiate sports and networks
"Collegiate beach volleyball has grown exponentially over the last four or five years. We were so excited when it became an emerging sport, people at that point didn't understand the team aspect of it because it's so different from the pros. The way people bought into the NCAA portion of it, when they deemed it a Championship sport, it changed everything. The scholarship opportunities, there are more opportunities for more athletes in the sport of volleyball. There are new opportunities for new athletes. There is no other sport that broadcasts better than beach volleyball. You only have to look at Gulf Shores and the spectacular pictures that we're putting out on Turner Broadcast. It really shows you how beautiful the sport is. People are drawn to the lifestyle of beach volleyball. We were talking yesterday about how different this NCAA Championship is than the other NCAA Championships, because you have such a close proximity to the athletes. There is certainly no other sport where you can choose your own action and run from court two to three to watch. The uniqueness of the sport, along with the beauty, is drawing a lot of attention to volleyball overall.
"I'm from Colorado, I'm not from a beach community. I grew up playing volleyball there, there is a thriving community with sand courts in different places. We were just talking with a coach from Utah and they have a thriving beach volleyball community in Utah. The thing that has really hit me is that on our rosters of the games we're calling for indoor and beach, it used to be such a coastal sport. We don't see that anymore. We saw someone last week at the Pac-12 Championship that came from Illinois, from beach clubs, from the center of the country. That didn't happen a few years ago. Now players know there are opportunities for them in college. There are terrific beach volleyball clubs, like RPM, Elite Beach Volleyball and Wave, popping up to train athletes to attempt to play at the NCAA level."
Jeffrey Caviness, a University of Mobile student in Gulf Shores on a day trip
"We just play for fun. We came down here to spend the day at the beach, play some volleyball and watch some [NCAA] volleyball. I play pretty often. We have a group at the University of Mobile that plays pretty consistently throughout the week. We've got two sand courts on campus, they've been there since 2008 at least, if not before that. I just found out about it last year that [NCAAs] was coming down here, I think it's awesome we get to host the tournament.
Jeffrey's friends chimed in that they all liked to play for fun. His friend Michael Sewell said he was, "psyched up the whole time to go watch some games." They aren't rooting for anyone in particular, more happy to spend the day hanging out together and watching beach volleyball.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, five time Olympian and four-time Olympic medalist
"This is what beach volleyball is all about. You hit the most beautiful beaches in the world. My friend Dave Culpepper set up this entire [NCAA] venue with his crew and he's been telling me for years how amazing Gulf Shores is. The sand is beautiful, the sand is perfect and the fans are here."
Laurie Cookmeyer, fans from New Orleans to watch a friend's daughter on the LSU squad
"Kristen Nuss is our friend's daughter, she's a freshman and she's doing wonderful. My sons started when they were about 17, playing indoor and beach. We [her and her husband] used to play beach volleyball before we had kids. That's how they started, because we used to go out there and play ourselves. As far as schools and playing beach volleyball, my sons didn't have that opportunity when they were in school. The high schools in New Orleans are starting to play beach volleyball now. I love it, I wish I was still in shape to play it."
Laurie talked about the boys-only schools in New Orleans now sponsoring beach volleyball and that the community is behind the sports' growth. She and her husband think that Tulane and LSU have helped the popularity in Louisiana, even at the adult level.
Nicole Keshock, an Alabama club director and the Volunteer Coordinator for the NCAA Beach Championship
"For how much its grown collegiately, now the youth and high school teams are growing. It's the sport of volleyball in general, not just with beach. There have always been pockets where there have been tendencies for girls to play volleyball. Now that's changed. I think beach volleyball has done a lot for that. It's not just those who start on the beach, starting indoor and moving to the beach, or being near a beach. You don't have to be from the West coast or the Midwest, which is big in indoor. Beach volleyball is big all over the place. It's every state, its growing dramatically. It's one of the largest girls' sports right now. You see these man-made sand courts going up everywhere. I was just talking to somebody from Alaska this morning that said they are looking to build sand courts and put it indoor so they can start playing that sport there.
"Our job as adults or people in the sports world, is to provide opportunity. I think number one, when you're providing opportunity for youth, they are staying out of trouble. They can learn so many things from sport. There are positives with youth being involved. They see the trend of how popular it's become in our country, they should dive right in. You can build a sand court in almost any venue. I've learned from people that want me to help build one in the back of a facility in a parking lot. Beach volleyball can go anywhere."
At the NCAA Championship, Nicole manages the scheduling of over 600 volunteers that help with ball shagging and court raking. A former collegiate indoor volleyball head coach, she's an insider in the community helping provide opportunities for kids in sports.
MAY 6 | NCAA Championship Day 2 | CLICK FOR MORE NCAA INFORMATION
Sunday's NCAA Beach Championship title match will be USC against the winner of Hawaii vs Pepperdine. The Championship final will air on TBS at 2 p.m. ET, while the elimination final between Hawaii and Pepperdine will stream live on NCAA.com. Click here for watch links and tournament information.
From the elimination bracket on Saturday, Florida State eliminated UCLA, followed by Hawaii defeating LSU. In the match-up against Hawaii and Florida State, the contest used all five duals, with Hawaii clinching a 3-2 victory to stay alive to play again on Sunday. USC swept Pepperdine in the third round of the winners bracket, forcing the Wave into the match against UH to earn a spot against USC in the title game.