UAB’s Newest Sport Brings the Beach to Birmingham
By Grant Martin
Even though Spring Break was still a few weeks away, one group of UAB student-athletes was already hitting the beach this February. No road trip was required, however, for the members of UAB’s first sand volleyball team—their “beach” of choice is a brand-new three-court facility adjacent to the Blazer soccer stadium.
UAB has long been home to a successful women’s indoor volleyball team, but head coach Hal Messersmith says fans at the Blazers' home matches this year are in for a whole new experience. “It’s a completely different game when you take it outside,” says Messersmith, who has spent the past six seasons inside Bartow Arena as the Blazers’ assistant volleyball coach. “The weather alone is a big factor, since you’re having to adjust to wind and temperature changes, and then there are the differences in the game itself; sand volleyball has a whole different dynamic.”
The NCAA announced it was designating sand volleyball as an “emerging sport” at roughly the same time that UAB began looking for women’s sports to replace its synchronized swimming program. (The emerging sport designation identifies new athletic opportunities for female athletes.) The university added bowling as a fall sport in 2011, with sand volleyball making its debut in spring 2012. But unlike the bowling program—which required the university to find a coach and assemble a team—the sand volleyball staff and players were on hand almost from the outset. In addition to being the assistant volleyball coach, Messersmith is the husband of UAB head volleyball coach Kerry Messersmith. Together, the two have led the Blazers to more than 130 wins in six seasons, having won 20 or more games in four of those seasons, including a 23-9 record in 2011.
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Once Hal Messersmith was named the sand volleyball coach last March, his first recruiting class came straight from the indoor volleyball roster—an arrangement that may change once more scholarship money becomes available but that for now will help the team hit the ground running. “Our main focus in recruiting will be on the national teams and club teams, since high schools don’t sanction sand volleyball outside the state of Arizona,” Messersmith says. “We’re open to anyone who is interested, but of course they have to be pretty good volleyball players to earn a spot with the players we already have.”
The Great Outdoors
More than a Beach Game
Sand volleyball, known as “beach volleyball” at the international level, was primarily a surfside recreational game before it became an Olympic sport in 1996. Today, hundreds of clubs across the country offer sand volleyball as a youth sport, but Arizona is the only state that offers it as an official high school sport.
Sand volleyball was sanctioned by the NCAA as an emerging sport for women at Division II schools in 2010 and at Division I schools in 2011. UAB's team is one of 14 that will be competing at the Division I level in 2012.
NCAA Division I legislation allows six scholarships to be added over a period of four years, beginning with three in 2011-12 and one each year for three years thereafter.
While the skills that make a great indoor volleyball player should translate well to sand volleyball, Messersmith says there are some major adjustments his players will have to make in the transition from the fall sport to the spring.
In indoor volleyball, teams of six players each occupy a court area that covers nine square meters. In sand volleyball, there are two players per side, with each team covering a slightly smaller eight-square-meter area. “There is more individual movement in sand volleyball and a lot more emphasis on communication between the players,” says Messersmith. “Chemistry between the players is going to be very important.”
The most fundamental change, Messersmith adds, will be the footwork adjustments needed to play on a loose-sand surface, though the fundamentals of setting and striking the ball can be different as well. “The skills are basically the same, but sand volleyball doesn’t have the precision that you have indoors,” he says. “Outside it becomes more of a control game. Inside you use your hands to set the ball, but you may go entire matches without using your hands at all outdoors. Without those perfect sets, you have to learn to adjust to the ball quickly in order to strike it.”
For its home matches, the team will play in a facility that features three adjacent courts that will allow more than one game to be going on at a time. The Blazers opened the season at home on March 3 against Florida State, then will hit the road for a few weeks before coming back in April to host Tulane and Mercer.
Even though Messersmith has lived in Alabama long enough to know how much the weather can change between early March and the season’s end in late April, this will be the first time he has had to take weather conditions into account when preparing a team for the season.
“I’ve told the team that we’re going to be out there on the court every chance we get, because we never know when we might have to play through some of the elements,” he says. “Cold and wind are the two things that hurt a sand court the most, and the wind can definitely affect the outcome of the game. We don’t have the same drainage issues that a baseball or softball field would have, so unless it’s actively raining or lightning, we’re going to play.”