Beach Season

The Blazers help power the NCAA's hottest sport
Story by Cary Estes • Photos and video by Lexi Coon, Matt Drummond, Laura Gasque, Andrea Mabry, Jeff Myers, Shibli Rahman, Steve Wood, and Carson Young
Photo illustration of sand with headline traced into it; headline: Beach Season
The Blazers help power the NCAA's hottest sport
Story by Cary Estes • Photos and video by Lexi Coon, Matt Drummond, Laura Gasque, Andrea Mabry, Jeff Myers, Shibli Rahman, Steve Wood, and Carson Young
The history of NCAA beach volleyball begins with UAB. In 2012, in Birmingham, the Blazers hosted Florida State in the first-ever NCAA-sanctioned beach volleyball match.
Today, beach volleyball is the fastest growing sport in college athletics. And UAB continues to play a key role as host of the NCAA national championship—held in Gulf Shores, Alabama—since 2016. The Blazers also recently unveiled a five-court beach volleyball complex on campus and are following up on a 14-win season, the best in program history. Head coach Kyra Iannone shares some insights from the sand:

Coach Kyra Iannone meets with two players on the sidelines during a beach volleyball matchCoach Kyra Iannone (center) meets with student-athletes during a break in a beach volleyball match.

Tell us about yourself. What drew you to Birmingham from Vancouver?
Iannone: I’ve been coaching professionally since 2007, both indoor college volleyball and running my own beach volleyball club. [She coached some of her athletes all the way to multiple FIVB World Championships.] In 2016 I took an assistant coaching job at Arizona. The next year, UAB called me. I didn’t know where that was initially, but I could tell UAB was invested in beach volleyball.
How has the sport evolved on the college level?
Iannone: It’s growing so fast. Every coach I talk with, there’s something exciting going on within their program, whether it’s new facilities or hiring more full-time assistants. It’s a great time to be part of the sport.
Is your team enjoying its new digs (pun intended)?
Iannone: Our old courts were hidden. The biggest comment I used to get from people around Birmingham was, “Oh, UAB has a beach volleyball team?” Now we’re across the street from the new football facility, so everybody sees the courts. It’s a great space with great sand.

Inside a serve: In the video above, Coach Kyra Iannone and student-athletes Brittney Munro and Abbey Thorup reveal the factors and calculations that go into the most important plays of the game.

What do you expect from this year’s team?
Iannone: We have 10 freshmen and eight returners. It’s a young team, but very talented. I can see all our freshmen trying to get a spot on the starting lineup this year.
Who are some key players to watch?
Ianonne: A senior from Florida, Kenley Adams, was the starting setter for UAB’s indoor volleyball team. She’s an outstanding leader and one of our best blockers. A freshman, Abbey Thorup, represented Canada at the FIVB Youth World Championships. She’s been outstanding in practice and has an amazing career ahead of her. And then we have a transfer, Kayla Heese, whose dad is Mark Heese, a three-time Olympian and 1996 bronze medalist for Canada. She’s going to make a big difference with her professionalism, mental toughness, and the way she sees the game.
How do you prepare for competition?
Iannone: We start out heavy in the gym, because you need a good base level of fitness in our sport. You have to be quick, you have to jump well, and you have to be powerful. It’s about 3-to-1 in terms of time spent on fitness versus skill development. As we get closer to the season, it goes in the other direction with more skill training. There’s a lot to learn. You have to excel at everything in our sport, because there are only two players on the court at a time.
How valuable is it to have UAB hosting the NCAA Tournament through at least 2022?
Iannone: It shows the commitment of our administration and our school to this sport. It shows that we value, invest in, and care about our sport. There isn’t a bigger stage in college than the national championship. It sends a big message.

Action photo from beach volleyball match, with players on both sides of the net leaping for the ballBlazer student-athletes leap for the ball during a match at the new beach volleyball complex on campus.

Published March 2020