Kellie Sciacca

Brand New Game

April 17, 2009

By Lauren WeberNotre Dame Sports Information

On a campus where winter weather conditions dominate for most of the year and the only palm trees around are paper or plastic versions decorating various dorm rooms, that mythical place known as “the beach” seems impossibly far away. However, the beach may soon be coming to Notre Dame in the form of sand volleyball. The Fighting Irish are spearheading a growing movement to make sand volleyball an NCAA-sanctioned sport, and eight members of the volleyball team will compete in the Fiesta on Siesta Key Collegiate Beach Volleyball Challenge in Siesta Key, Fla., on April 18.

As assistant volleyball coach Matt Botsford acknowledges, “Most people would think it’s strange to have Notre Dame at the forefront of this beach volleyball push because of geography.” Most of the other schools competing in Siesta Key represented warmer climates, with Florida schools comprising the majority of the field. Despite fewer natural advantages in becoming a power player on the sand volleyball scene, Notre Dame is not without resources. “There’s a really solid community of beach volleyball in the Midwest, and the sand facility we trained at, Outpost Sports, is maybe one of the top facilities in the country, so all of those things are big and make this effort easier for Notre Dame than other Midwest schools,” said Botsford.

Sand volleyball, as the NCAA refers to the sport, differs from indoor volleyball in that teams are comprised of only two players, each of whom must be able to cover all areas of the court instead of specializing in one position. Notre Dame and the other schools pushing for sand volleyball to become an official NCAA sport are riding the wave of beach volleyball’s popularity at the Summer Olympics, and especially the success of U.S. gold medalists Misty May and Kerry Walsh. “We’re trying to utilize what happened with the Olympics in trying this movement at a point in time where there’s some momentum from the success of our women’s team in Beijing,” Botsford said.

Also helping Notre Dame’s efforts is the success of former Irish volleyball star Angie Akers. A 1998 graduate of the University, Akers brought the Irish as high as sixth in the national rankings during her time here. She entered the professional beach volleyball world in 2002, when she was named Rookie of the Year. In six of her first seven seasons on the AVP Tour, Akers has been ranked in the top 20. Although she has enjoyed great success on tour, Akers did not find the transition to beach volleyball easy. Akers was working at Lehman Brothers in San Francisco in 2001 when a former Notre Dame teammate called her to see if Akers was interested in moving to Southern California to try playing doubles on the beach. “I did not enjoy sitting at a desk for nine hours a day, so I jumped at the idea,” Akers said.

Initially, she struggled with the beach game, but she was determined to press forward. “I was terrible! I had been running for the previous three years and completely lost my fast-twitch muscle fibers.” Akers found her footing on the sand after attending a Rookies’ Camp held by AVP Tour Pro Holly McPeak. “[Holly] helped me find my first partner, and seven years later, she became my partner,” Akers said of her mentor and friend.

Irish head coach Debbie Brown coached Akers during her career at Notre Dame, and says of the athlete: “Angie is really positive. She’s done so well. Her work ethic is tremendous, and she’s just a great example.”

Akers’ success has inspired other Irish volleyball players to pursue careers on the beach, and she offers encouragement and help to aspiring players. “Angie is such a great resource. She’s willing to help anybody, and she’s so passionate about the game. She really loves it, and would do anything for someone else that wanted to follow along or try to pick it up,” said Brown.

For any players who consider competing on the beach, Akers cautions that the movement from the indoor game will be jarring at first. “The transition from hard court to the sand is very hard. Most players who were great indoor players get very frustrated and quit after three or four months.” Many indoor players develop specialized skills, and find it difficult to transition to the beach game, where they must be consummate all-around players. According to Akers, “If you are a great attacker, but you lack ball control skills, you will get eaten alive on the beach. Your weaknesses are instantly exposed and exploited in the beach game.”

Because the beach game demands so much of players in terms of developing all facets of their play, Botsford and Brown believe practicing sand volleyball will only help the Irish. “It’s definitely a different game,” said Botsford, “but it complements what happens in the indoor game. You’ve got to be able to play different sides of the ball, block and attack. You have to be a well-rounded player, efficient and effective. The beach doesn’t allow for specialization.”

The movement to sanction sand volleyball scares some indoor coaches who worry about losing players, but Brown is not worried. She believes that practicing sand volleyball improves players’ indoor skills, and that the growing popularity of sand volleyball helps volleyball as a sport. “The popularity of the sport and the Olympics have helped a lot and it’s great for training, so I really think it’s a positive thing, ” Brown said. “There are some players that’ll like the beach game better, and some that’ll like the indoor game better. But I think that you can do both, or you could specialize if you wanted to. I don’t see beach volleyball as hurting the indoor game at all.”

Akers concurs, and thinks sanctioning sand volleyball as an NCAA sport will also help the pro tour. “As things are now, it is very hard for rookies to really break into the AVP. There is not a lot of turnover from year to year. If the sport is going to survive in the US, there needs to be a sort of feeder-system into our league.” Furthermore, it seems inevitable and necessary to Akers that the NCAA grants beach volleyball official status. “Beach volleyball is the most popular sport at the Summer Olympics. It is time for the sport to be recognized by the NCAA.”

Just as the Irish volleyball players get to experience a new locale during their sand volleyball experience, Akers gets to see new parts of the world consistently during her travels for competition. “I travel to the most amazing beaches all over the world for work. My office is the beach!” she said. However, the first-hand experience of traveling the world has given Akers much more than knowledge of good beaches. “I have gained so much from traveling that it is hard to quantify. I really enjoy experiencing the diversity of the world – different cultures, landscapes, traditions, and ways of life,” Akers said.

While sand volleyball’s status as an official NCAA sport remains in limbo, Notre Dame will continue to support the movement to sanction the sport. The movement to sanction sand volleyball is gaining steam with the support of more colleges and universities, and influential figures in the beach world. “I think sand volleyball is a really good thing to offer, and when it does become a sanctioned sport we want to be in a position to field a team and be competitive with it. It’s at the forefront of change right now,” Brown said.