Poised to begin only its third season as an NCAA emerging sport, sand volleyball has passed the important threshold of 40 sanctioned programs. By our calculation, Washington’s confirmation of participation in their Jan. 16 press release tipped the scales. With 41 schools participating this season, assuming they all come back for more in 2015, sand volleyball qualifies to be considered for an NCAA National Championship in 2016.

The fastest-growing NCAA emerging sport ever, sand volleyball fielded 16 teams in 2012 and 29 last season, and growth at the juniors and high school level matches that of the college game. According to the AVCA, nearly half a million 13- to 25-year-old female athletes have taken up the sport since 2007, and in 2012, Arizona became the first state to sanction high school competition. Beach volleyball clubs are popping up all over the nation to fill the demand of young girls who watched Misty and Kerri win their third straight gold medal in London and said, “I want to do that.”

Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the AVCA, predicts even faster growth in the future if the sport achieves NCAA Championship status. “There are a significant number of administrators who see an NCAA Championship as a sign of legitimacy for a sport,” she said. “With men’s Division III volleyball, it took about 17 years to get to the threshold of 50 programs playing for two consecutive seasons*, and now just three years later we’re over 70.”

DeBoer emphasized that having 40 teams competing for two years doesn’t guarantee that the NCAA will green-light a championship for sand volleyball. “They don’t promise it,” she said. “But they have yet to not deliver on funding a championship when a sport meets those threshold numbers.”

Administrators find sand volleyball an appealing sport to add for a variety of reasons. It increases participation opportunities for female athletes, it costs relatively little to start a team, and just as little to keep up the annual operating costs. A team can be fielded without recruiting a single new player or hiring any additional coaches by utilizing athletes and staff from the indoor version of the sport.

“There’s been two other sports where that’s the case,” said DeBoer. “Water polo, which started frequently with some swimmers and maybe an assistant swimming coach, and indoor track, which started and pretty much always has relied on cross country and outdoor track athletes. Water polo and swimming and sand volleyball and court volleyball are two separate sports, but they share enough of the basics that you can use crossover kids to get started.”

However, as we see sand volleyball grow in popularity and administrators award their programs larger budgets and more scholarship opportunities (this year, sand programs are allowed five scholarships, moving up to six for 2015), we will see the two versions of the sports diverge.

“Programs that are in year one are primarily using crossover student athletes from their court team to start the program and are most frequently using one of the coaches that is currently on their court staff to coach the program,” explained DeBoer. “Each year that a school sponsors the program, we see more sand-only athletes and we see more coaches that are primarily sand-focused.” She offered the example of the University of Southern California and Florida State. Between the two teams, both of which have been competing since the inaugural 2012 season, only three athletes play on both the indoor and sand teams, and all three of those crossover kids attend Florida State. Every sand volleyball player on USC’s team is just that: a sand volleyball player.

But they weren’t always. Standout indoor players from USC Natalie Hagglund, Katie Fuller, and Sara Shaw played on the beach in 2012 but have since been replaced by sand exclusives like top 2013 recruit Sara Hughes, transfers Lauren Sieckmann (Pepperdine), Brooke Fournier (Arkansas), and Alexa Strange (Nebraska), and grad students Mary Buckingham and Natasa Siljkovic.

DeBoer predicts the prevalence of crossover players will decrease as sand athletes spend more time honing their craft year-round. “If you start in a sand club when you’re 14 or 15 years old and you’re playing five to six, maybe seven months of sand volleyball and two months or so of court volleyball, maybe you play on your high school team and then you play sand the rest of the year, by the time you get ready to go to college, you’re going to be a whole lot better in sand volleyball than you are in court volleyball. And vice versa.”

Eventually, players will come into the top sand programs having spent just as much time prepping their beach games as the highest-level indoor players have spent in the gym, and part-time sand players will have a hard time competing with that.

Schools like Georgia State and 2014 addition South Carolina recognized the benefit of keeping the programs separate right from the start. Georgia State, in their inaugural season last year, fielded a team absent of a single indoor player. South Carolina tapped former indoor assistant Moritz Moritz to head the new team, and he then dropped his responsibilities with the indoor program to work with his sand players year-round. The Gamecocks roster features 16 athletes, nine of whom are sand-only.

“We wanted [sand volleyball] to clearly have its own identity,” said South Carolina senior associate athletic director Judy Van Horn, “and not have any perception that it’s an add-on to the indoor volleyball program, but that it is a legitimate, fully-functioning varsity sport in its own right. As we bring recruits in and we have student athletes [join the team], they know that they have the same stature and status as any student athlete on any other team or part of any other program.”

For those schools looking to bring on a new coach for their sand programs, there seems to be no lack of qualified candidates, especially in Southern California where current and former beach pros abound. John Mayer (Loyola Marymount), Misty May-Treanor (USC), and Sarah Straton (UCLA) have taken volunteer positions, while Andrew Fuller (USC), Jenny Johnson Jordan (UCLA), and Eyal Zimet (San Francisco) will serve as assistants, and Stein Metzger, a 16-time AVP title holder, will hold the reigns of the UCLA program for the second year in a row.

Just as the sand programs have plucked a few of the top high school players from the indoor recruit pool, some coaches are leaving the gym for the beach as well. In November, Nina Matthies, Pepperdine’s indoor coach for 31 years, announced her retirement from the indoor game with the intention of focusing more intensely on Pepperdine’s dominant sand program. The Waves sand team lost their first contest ever at last year’s AVCA National Championships and boast a 37-1 overall record heading into their third season. The CBVA Beach Volleyball Hall of Famer Matthies, who holds 44 pro beach titles and helped to organize the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association, decided that it was a good time to return to the beach full time.

The 2014 season brings doubles action to the Pacific Northwest where Pac-12 programs Oregon and Washington will compete for their first year, and Boise State joins Mountain West opponent San Jose State on the sand-wagon.

California unsurprisingly still holds the trophy for most sand programs with 16, including the first-year teams at Cal Poly, Cal State Northridge, and San Jose State, but Florida comes in a respectable second with seven.

The buzz over sand volleyball continues to bubble across the nation.

“We are already getting a fair amount of interest by the media,” said Van Horn. “[Sand volleyball] has generated a sense of excitement and energy both on our campus and in the community that has surprised me in a wonderful way.”

DeBoer echoed Van Horn’s delight with the successful emerging sport. “What I am as the executive director of the AVCA is passionate about volleyball,” said DeBoer. “When you have volleyball going in the spring and you have volleyball going in the fall on your college campus, I am hard-pressed to figure out how that can hurt.”

*For men’s volleyball, the threshold number was set at 50, as opposed to the 40 programs sand volleyball needs to be considered for national championship status.

Texas Christian University will become the first Texas school to add sand volleyball when they sponsor a team for the 2014-15 season.

2014 Sand Volleyball Competitors 
** New programs in 2014

University of Alabama at Birmingham
University of Arizona**
Arizona State University**
Boise State University**
California Polytechnic State University**
California State University, Bakersfield
California State University, Northridge**
California State University, Sacramento
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Los Angeles
College of Charleston
Florida Atlantic University
Florida Gulf Coast University
Florida International University
Florida State University
Georgia State University
Grand Canyon University
University of Hawai’i
Hawai’i Pacific University**
Jacksonville University
Long Beach State University
University of Louisiana at Monroe
Louisiana State University**
Loyola Marymount University
Mercer University
Mississippi State University**
University of Nebraska
University of North Florida
University of Oregon**
University of the Pacific
Pepperdine University
University of San Francisco
San Jose State University**
Santa Clara University
University of South Carolina**
University of Southern California
Saint Mary’s College of California
Stanford University
Stetson University
Tulane University
University of Washington**