The junior beach volleyball population of Southern California’s “South Bay” increases every summer right around the end of June through the beginning of August. Local residents brace themselves for the wave of players and their families who make the annual migration for six weeks of junior beach volleyball events from just about every organization involved in youth sports, literally from A to Z.
It’s a treasure trove for college coaches of the NCAA’s 90th championship sport. I’m sure there are a number of athletic directors questioning so many trips to Southern California’s best beaches, expenditures for sun screen and flip flops, and an occasional beach umbrella or Molten volleyball. Where else can you see the world’s top beach volleyball players practicing about 50-feet from their future competitors battling it out for a chance to represent the USA? As far as the eye can see, beach volleyball courts on hot sand beaches, balls flying in the air from dawn until dusk.
The unbelievable backdrop, incredible weather and top-notch talent make these beach volleyball events serious business. The USA Volleyball Beach High Performance Championships round out the six weeks of all that is junior beach volleyball on the West Coast. What I like about this event is how it combines the laid-back vibe often associated with beach volleyball and the intense international style that is the trademark of the USAV HP program. This year teams from Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico participated, setting up some exciting play, like a re-match of the Youth Olympic Games boys’ qualifier between the USA’s Tim Brewster (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) and John Schwengel (Santa Monica, Calif.) and Puerto Rico’s William Rivera and Randall Santiago, two of the top programs in the NORCECA zone covering North, Central America and the Caribbean. Brewster/Schwengel represented the USA at the FIVB U-19 World Championships earlier this summer before losing a close match to their Puerto Rican rivals at the NORCECA Youth Olympic Games qualification tournament. The two teames met again in Manhattan Beach, with a USA victory this time around. These two teams will meet again, perhaps several times in the future as their careers continue to develop.
Much like the indoor HP program, USAV’s beach HP program seeks to train the athletes to compete in international events such as NORCECA Continental Championships, FIVB World Championships and the Youth Olympic Games. These young athletes are also learning how to manage their energy, maintain mental toughness as their playing surroundings can be affected by weather, temperature, spectators and fans. They are learning how to think about the big picture in terms of their competition schedules. How to hydrate properly, what to eat (or what to avoid when playing in a foreign country), when to rest, when to dig down deeper than they ever thought possible to finish a long rally or a big play.
Focusing on international competition is a key component of training in the beach HP program, and that includes players as well as coaches and officials. Official recognition as an NCAA championship sport for women created new opportunities for beach volleyball in the United States. Scholarship opportunities are available for U.S. athletes, and foreign athletes as well. Coaching and officiating opportunities increased throughout the country as new programs committed to beach volleyball and created new competitive opportunities. In other countries, it’s not uncommon for youth and junior players to compete in adult or senior level tournaments together. The athletes may be young when they first compete, but it provides them with an important introduction to international rules, coaching regulations (there are no coaches allowed during match play in international senior competitions including the FIVB World Tour and the Olympic Games) and allows exposure to top-level senior talent. In the U.S., the NCAA competitions provide an important stepping stone to professional play, but with limitations on eligibility, different rules and a different ball, it's hard to train the international style of play outside of FIVB, NORCECA or USAV events like the HP Beach Championships.
As great as it is to see the development in girls’ and women’s volleyball, it’s equally as important to see the boys’ teams come together on the “Path to the Podium.” Men’s volleyball at the collegiate level is on the brink of either massive success or eventual extinction. It all depends on opportunity. Opportunity for more programs to survive or start-up at all. Opportunity for more boys to play at the high school and club levels, which may then lead to more opportunity at the collegiate level. And among those indoor men’s college players will also come the next Olympic beach hopeful, player and coach.
Olympic gold medalist Todd Rogers is now the head coach of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo women’s beach team. It’s been a mere 10 years since he won his gold medal with Phil Dalhausser at the Beijing Olympics, and only a few years since he retired from international competition. Todd is a great example of a USA Olympian who is making the most of his opportunities to continue giving back to beach volleyball after his playing days have ended. Todd has always been a coach at heart, and watching him teach all aspects of the game to new members of Team USA is a special thing to see. Todd contributes as a volunteer to the USA Volleyball Board of Directors, representing the male beach athletes. He coaches in the USAV high performance and beach national team pipeline, and before retiring as a player from Team USA, took the time to mentor younger players and share his expertise (as well as his coveted seeding points to FIVB events).
Tayyiba Haneef-Park, two-time Olympic silver medalist in indoor volleyball, rejoined the coaching ranks on the beach at the University of Arizona as part of the effort to establish beach volleyball as an emerging sport in the NCAA. As an assistant coach for Arizona’s beach volleyball program, she had the opportunity to mentor some of the young women who are now entering the professional tours as the rising stars. She recently shared her Olympic expertise as a team delegate within the USAV HP indoor volleyball programs working with youth and junior national teams competing in continental championships. Her years of international experience on and off the court provides a unique insight for the athletes and coaches, and her name recognition in the international volleyball community gives the young USA athletes and coaches a much-needed boost to know that she’s on their team, too.
Jenny Johnson Jordan, a 2000 Sydney Olympian, is the assistant coach of the UCLA beach team and was spotted at the HP Championships. Jenny represented the red, white, and blue on the FIVB World Tour for many years with partner Annett Davis. Today, both are back coaching future talent, with Jenny at UCLA beach and Annett paving a new path with ELEV8 Beach Volleyball Club and as an assistant coach for The Masters University in Southern California. Their Olympic coach and UCLA volunteer assistant, Jeff Alzina, was camped out on several courts in Manhattan Beach overseeing a number of USA HP teams he’s been working with all summer at the U-19 FIVB World Championships, NORCECA Youth Olympic Qualifier and other international competitions. Anna Collier, USC's beach head coach, was on the recruiting trail for the next national champion, having coached current USA beach national team players Kelly Claes, who took a silver medal earlier this season with new partner Brittany Hochevar, and Sara Hughes, who will be competing with Summer Ross next week in the FIVB World Tour Finals at Hamburg, Germany as the lone USA team. Caught a glimpse of Patty Dodd (MB Sand), Rico Guimares (Florida International University), Brooke Niles (Florida State University) and many others out there on the sand mentoring future Team USA athletes.
As beach volleyball continues its global rise in popularity, opportunities for athletes, coaches and officials are at an all-time high. As the USA beach juniors were competing in Manhattan Beach, about 6,000 miles away our senior national beach teams were competing at the Vienna Major in Austria in front of sold-out crowds and against the best beach volleyball players in the world who are eager to start the clock on qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. What a fantastic opportunity to showcase our sport in such a major way. One day soon, one of these young athletes learning and developing back home may find himself or herself on center court at an FIVB Major playing for gold, or marching into an Olympics opening ceremony.
My thanks goes out to all those involved in the USA Volleyball beach high performance program, including the many consultant coaches and evaluators who help at tryouts, clinics, tournaments and training camps all year. And thanks to our USA Volleyball beach high performance & event staff, athletic trainers, officials, arbitrator and volunteers who were out in full force in Manhattan Beach.
Our beach national teams are making their moves in order to begin Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification on Sept. 1. As they travel the world in pursuit of Olympic qualification, it’s reassuring to know that back home the next generation of USA Volleyball beach national team hopefuls are getting ready for their turn. Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 are not that far away, so we need to keep up the pace in searching out new opportunities for junior beach talent identification and competition at the international level. As the 2018 Youth Olympic Games approach this October, I want to wish our youngest USA beach national team of Devon Newberry (Santa Monica, Calif.) and Lindsey Sparks (Huntington Beach, Calif.) the best on the Road to Buenos Aires! We’ll be watching and cheering for you and the rest of Team USA!