Beach Volleyball (Update)

Over three years ago (time flies) I wrote an article on DIII Beach Volleyball. The sport was just starting to get some traction in DIII and I was curious how it would impact the indoor game. The gist of the article (from my perspective) was that it would be a huge competitive advantage for a school to start the program from an indoor recruiting aspect. I envisioned top tier prospective recruits liking the fact that they could play both indoor and outdoor volleyball and there are very few DIII schools that offer this (only 3 at the time).  I mean it’s an exciting sport, too, but think of the possibilities for my beloved indoor sport! The coaches I interviewed for the article mainly talked about their love for the sport and how it would get more student-athletes involved in volleyball in general. Three years later, not a lot has changed but there have been some updates. Hendrix (located in Conway, Arkansas) has already added beach volleyball having played this past spring. I haven’t seen any articles on this but Berry (Mount Berry, Georgia) will be adding the sport this spring, as well. Closer to home, Region X will see Mary Hardin-Baylor (UMHB) start the program up in 2022. That makes three new DIII beach volleyball programs in the southern part of the nation or exactly the total for the entire nation just three years ago.

As I mentioned above, part of the premise of my original article was the recruiting benefits and how it would also help the indoor game. UMHB head coach (of both indoor and beach) Mark Pryor would have none of it, however. Hendrix beach volleyball head coach MC Parker also didn’t bite. So, I thought this was a good time for a follow-up article where I detail how I convinced these coaches how wrong they are.

Yeah, that didn’t go well.

Before I get into some of the back-and-forth with the coaches, let’s talk about the one major event that has occurred in the last three years that has directly impacted college sports. Can anyone name it? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? That’s right, Covid. One of the greatest impacts Covid has on colleges (outside of the health issues, of course) is the potential decrease in enrollment. One area that was discussed in the past was to use athletics as a vehicle to increase enrollment by enlarging rosters. This, to me, devalues the athletic experience and puts a huge burden on the coaches to make the situation viable. DIII Athletics should be used to complete a rounded college experience, not (solely) a tool to bring students into the school.

In talking with Coach Parker and Coach Pryor, the main thing I got from them (outside of their passion for the sport) was the enrollment benefits from adding the beach volleyball program. Coach Pryor was very blunt, “Volleyball people have to stop thinking like a coach and think like an administrator.  You have to think about the DIII university model. Almost all of these universities are enrollment driven.  If they can add another 14-16 students, that will more than cover the operating costs of the program.”

Coach Parker agreed after I pushed back on why her administrators were attempting to have separate indoor and beach rosters, “Increased enrollment is the main factor for having separate rosters. We definitely still take it case by case, but for the most part the talented athletes I recruit for our level are starting to specialize since more and more beach programs are moving to beach only.”

I mean come on! Adding the beach program has to help the indoor program, right? Be honest! Coach Parker, “I would say it hasn’t made a huge impact.”

I’m assuming, however, if a DI talent outside hitter comes knocking and will commit but they have to play both sports that they won’t be turned away. Don’t dash that dream of mine! Coach Pryor, “You need to see us play live. We [already] have one or two of those kids in the gym now.”

I told you things didn’t go well for me. (And maybe I ranked UMHB too low this season? Yikes.)

Initially, for both schools, there will be opportunities for players to participate in both sports in the same school year. We’ll call these hybrid players. With indoor played in the fall and beach played in the spring and this being DIII, there isn’t much overlap between the sports. It was this hybrid player that I thought would bring a competitive advantage to the indoor program. As the program matures, however, both coaches were quite clear that the hybrid player would be the exception if one existed at all. From the quotes above, the reason is simple; enrollment. From a cost perspective, the placement of the sports on the calendar does allow some flexibility with the coaching staffs and UMHB is making use of that as the staff will be shared between the two sports. Hendrix, on the other hand, has two different staffs.

I have to say I’ve come around to this enrollment way of thinking but Coach Pryor did throw me a bone of sorts when it comes to recruitment, “We will have a lot of players that are interested in our indoor program that might not see the court for their first 2-3 years, and we are honest about that.  If they still love the school and all that goes with it, we could possibly offer them a spot on our beach program and they could have an opportunity to play much sooner.”

Coach Pryor went on to say that as their beach program fills out that this may not be possible in the future but the concept of being a beach player one year and then an indoor player the next (both dedicated to only that sport) is intriguing. Of course, if I was the indoor coach in this situation, I’d be afraid the player would never want to come back!

Back to enrollment and we can expect the rosters to be similar to that of the indoor game. Basically, that’s probably between 16 to the low 20s in additional student-athletes. UMHB just announced a recruiting class of 10 players and I assume the hybrid players will make up the rest for their first year. Hendrix has 21 players listed on their roster for the 2022 season.

If you are unfamiliar with beach volleyball then know that they play 5 games that count towards the result. A team must essentially win a best of five match taking at least three of the games played. There is a sixth “exhibition” match that also gets played and, according to Coach Parker, allows “up and coming players to get more game experience”. Each match consists of two players so in beach volleyball, you’ll always have 12 players doing what they love. As we all know, with the indoor game there are only 6 on the court at any one time so there is more opportunity in the beach game for playing time. Just like the indoor game where players can win and lose positions, the same thing can happen in the outdoor game. Partners can be switched out based on performance or team chemistry. Interestingly, Coach Parker made special mention that team chemistry is very important in the outdoor game. Makes sense when you figure that the team dynamic is really just with two as opposed to what you put on the court in the indoor game.

Both Hendrix and Berry play out of the Southern Athletic Association so it will be interesting to see if more schools in that conference join in. UMHB is the first school in Texas to jump, which begs the question as to which school will be next? I asked Coach Pryor if he knew of other DIII programs that were interested and he replied, “There have been schools calling me, as well as athletic directors calling our administration looking into numbers. So, I bet there will be a few more programs within a few years.”

I checked in with Coach Flora, who contributed to my original article, over at Southwestern (just 30 minutes from UMHB). He indicated that beach volleyball is in discussion and they may have some sand courts identified that would work for the program. That really is the negative side of creating a beach volleyball program and what leads to the additional costs. That is, creating or finding sand volleyball courts in a sport where you really need a minimum of three and up to five. UMHB has three courts with lightning and have invested money to get them and the associated facilities to tournament levels. Hendrix has only one sand court on campus but came up with a novel way around their problem as Coach Parker describes, “We use the three-court facility at the University of Central Arkansas, which is 8 minutes from our campus. They allow us to host tournaments there and everything. We have a fair-trade agreement with UCA since they use our indoor tennis courts.”

Coach Parker went on to say, “The plan is to build 3 or 4 courts on our campus in the next few years.”

It’s sort of funny to see these southern schools starting this program while there doesn’t seem to be any movement from the SCIAC in southern California along the same lines. It just seems like a natural fit to have a beach volleyball program when you have a beach in your general area. Stealing from my original article:

Cal Lutheran Head Coach Kellee Roesel is more direct when she says it “blows her mind” that the southern California schools haven’t embraced beach volleyball, yet.

I guess the SCIAC schools (most of which are not cheap to attend) don’t have an enrollment issue after suspending sports for a year and moving to mostly online learning? Must be nice and I simply can’t see it to be true. (Side note: I guess when it comes to my indoor articles, as you know, I’m always going to pick on the New England schools. With beach volleyball, it appears that the SCIAC is my New England and I’m not sorry in either case.)

I guess what I came away with in researching this article is that while you may think Covid would hamper the already slow efforts to get DIII beach volleyball moving forward, it may actually end up helping. Once administrators crunch the numbers and see that they can bring in 20+ students to their institution at the relatively low cost to run the program, you would think the decision would be easy. The more pressure the school gets to increase (or maintain) enrollment just means that same pressure could be applied to getting a beach volleyball program formed. With both UMHB and Hendrix already making the move, it just means more resources (knowledge base) are available to help other schools. Let’s hope for even more growth in the sport over the next 3-years! Ultimately, a beach volleyball conference seems likely with a few more southern schools taking up the sport.


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