By Andrew Alexander
Bikinis. Sunshine. Sandy beaches. That scene from Top Gun. These are the thoughts most commonly associated with sand volleyball by the average person.
The newly formed women’s sand volleyball team at LSU is taking the beach vacation pastime of the masses is to a whole new level. Beginning this spring, women’s sand volleyball will become the newest varsity sport at LSU.
In its third season, the sport of collegiate women’s sand volleyball is a rapidly expanding sport. According to the American Volleyball Coaches Association website, over 40 NCAA four-year colleges and universities sponsor varsity sand volleyball programs, which means the NCAA will begin to transition sand volleyball from “emerging sport” to championship sport status.
The addition of sand volleyball brings to total number of varsity sports at LSU to 21, which is mildly ironic considering sand volleyball will be one of the few collegiate sports where of-age spectators will be able to purchase alcoholic beverages during the Tigers’ home matches.
One unique aspect of LSU’s sand volleyball program is how this blossoming sport fields its team. By meshing sand volleyball specialists with indoor volleyball crossover players, it vaguely resembles a small town high school basketball team waiting for football season to end to get half its starting five back.
While the indoor players have been practicing all winter, four LSU sand volleyball specialists have been dedicated to learning to perfect the art of sand volleyball.
As a former four-year letter winner for LSU’s indoor team, senior Meghan Mannari knows a thing or two about indoor volleyball. Mannari is now one of the four sand volleyball specialists along with senior Kaitlin Hatcher, sophomore Victoria Boraski and freshman Emma Hiller.
“I feel like it is such a great opportunity,” Mannari said. “I wanted to represent LSU for one more year.”
Hatcher also brings Division I indoor volleyball experience to the new Tigers’ sand volleyball team. Hatcher began her collegiate volleyball career at the University of New Orleans. After playing two years for the Privateers, Hatcher transferred to LSU when UNO reclassified to Division III.
Upon her return to Baton Rouge, Hatcher focused on honing her beach volleyball game by watching others, playing in tournaments and constantly practicing. But Hatcher jumped at the chance to take her sand volleyball game to the next level when she heard about LSU’s new team.
“I knew I could get some much experience and have an actual coach in beach volleyball, which I’ve always wanted but never had,” Hatcher said.
As a young girl, Hatcher remembers watching her childhood idols, Kerry Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, win their first sand volleyball gold medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
“When they were in Olympics for the first time, I remember watching them and I was like, ‘I’m definitely going to do that, I want to be like Misty May-Treanor,’” Hatcher said.
Hiller began playing sand volleyball in high school. As a former volleyball standout at Baton Rouge’s St. Joseph’s Academy, Hiller used sand volleyball as a fun way to train in the offseason for indoor volleyball.
“I started playing sand volleyball because my high school coach mentioned that Mango’s was here (in Baton Rouge), and that we should play with our own team in a league to get better at indoor volleyball,” Hiller said. “When I saw the flyer (announcing LSU sand volleyball tryouts) at Mango’s, my brain like exploded. I was like, ‘This is best thing ever.’ I was so excited!”
Though long time LSU indoor volleyball coach Fran Flory is still the head coach, Russell Brock was hired last fall to lead LSU’s sand volleyball program as the associate head coach.
“To have the opportunity to a part of be of an athletic department like LSU is something that any college coach would always be attracted to,” Brock said.
Despite having no sand volleyball coaching experience at the collegiate level, Brock said “the nice thing about that is there aren’t a ton of people who have had experience at the collegiate level.”
“Russell is an outstanding coach who understands how to run a collegiate program,” Flory said. “He is very passionate about the sport but also understands how to balance the academic and athletic challenges that all student-athletes face. He has proven to be a great choice to help start this program.”
“Russell is the coolest coach I’ve ever had,” Hatcher said. “He’s a relaxed coach, but at the same time he makes you work hard and want to get better.”
Despite the crossover of talent, indoor and sand volleyball do have some distinct differences. Indoor volleyball fields six players per side during competition, while there are just two people per team and no substitutions in sand volleyball. Sand volleyball only consists of a best of three match with games played to 21.
“While there are similarities in terms of basic technique, sand volleyball is a completely different sport in terms of strategy, number of players on the court, skill set and mentality,” Flory explained.
“Chemistry is a big part of sand volleyball,” Brock added. “You can’t just put two great players out there. You really have to be able to work together. You have to be able to almost instinctually work off of each other and know how you’re going to react to certain situations and that comes with experience.”
“Indoor volleyball allows players to specialize by position and skill set, while sand volleyball forces everyone to do everything,” Flory said. “It is unforgiving in terms of identifying weaknesses and forces all players to develop all skills.”
“In the outdoor game you have to deal with the wind, and the weather plays a big factor,” Boraski said.
In its first season, the women’s sand volleyball team will be on the road a lot, with several trips to Florida’s beaches to take on many Sunshine State teams. Brock expects the Tigers to develop a good rivalry with South Carolina, the only other Southeastern Conference school with a sand volleyball team, and Tulane because of the close proximity to New Orleans.
Despite the program’s infancy, the team has dreams of success the season.
“We have clearly defined our goal is to be in the NCAA Championships and not very many people get to go,” Brock said.
“We certainly expect to be successful,” Flory said. “While our experience level will not be that of many of the teams we will compete against, we feel that as the season progresses, we will be very successful.”
Brock and his players are hoping the laid-back atmosphere and fast-paced nature of the sport will attract tons of new fans to go out and watch the Tigers’ home matches at Mango’s Beach Volleyball Club.
“It’s a new, fun sport with action constantly,” Mannari said. “It’s a great environment, and if you’re 21, the bar is open so [the fans] can drink.”
“We’re trying to put out events that really will be engaging and fun,” Brock said.