April 18, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - The Stanford women's sand volleyball team was ready to start its home match against Pacific on Tuesday at the ACSR Sand Volleyball Courts, tucked between the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Taube South tennis courts. Ample sun screen had been applied by Cardinal players, who volleyed and danced to music. A nice crowd turned out, many stretched out on a grassy hill or sitting on lawn chairs under the towering oak trees.
There was just one problem: the Tigers were running late. Seems they got caught in traffic on the trip from Stockton and arrived about 30 minutes tardy.
No matter. Stanford players sat in the sand and made small talk in the sun. The low-key atmosphere had all the makings of a high school beach day until the contest began. Then, both teams were all business, though players occasionally laughed at themselves when they got stuck in the sand or failed to make routine plays in the indoor game.
Among the curious onlookers, bike riders and dog walkers who soaked up the action was men's assistant basketball coach Mark Madsen.
"I just wanted to see what it was all about," he said.
Across the way, former Cardinal football standouts Stepfan Taylor and Levine Toilolo applauded appreciatively when Stanford made nice plays. Taylor, gearing up for upcoming NFL Draft next week, has been a fixture at home games. Even a short-lived mini-wave erupted.
Two other Cardinal greats, Andrew Luck and Coby Fleeneer, have also been sighted at a match. Luck's sister, Mary Ellen, a junior defensive specialist, is part of what several players on the squad call the "Dream Team." Luck and freshman blocker Inky Ajanaku are undefeated on the season.
This is the first year women's sand volleyball has been played as a varsity sport, making it the 36th overall at Stanford. There are 11 players on the team - all from indoor volleyball - and all are making the adjustment to the outside game.
"It's definitely different," said junior outside hitter Rachel Williams of Los Gatos. "It's a big learning experience for everybody, in terms of learning the beach game. Nothing quite like 6-on-6 indoor, and then having to move in the sand. There's a different feel out here."
Added junior middle blocker Carly Wopat of Santa Barbara, "First of all, it's just really exciting. It's fun doing something new. And it's nice to be outdoors in the sun. It's definitely a different game, but I think it's really going to compliment our indoor game as well."
For instance, jumping and spiking are much tougher in the sand.
"I felt like when we went indoors for practice I was going to feel like l got double-bounced on a trampoline, where you don't know how to control your body because it's so much different than the sand," Williams said.
Players keep score with flip-over numbers and there is no public address announcer. Players also rake the sand before and after matches. With two matches played simultaneously on two sand courts, spectators must pay attention to keep up.
While sand and indoor volleyball have the same court dimensions, technique and strategy differ. For starters, the sand game is two-versus-two, meaning you have to cover a lot more ground and do a great job of communicating.
"You really have to handle the pressure and take it upon yourself to be the leader that your partner needs to help inspire your partner and make things work," said Williams. "You're out there on your own."
And there is no place to hide.
"The leadership aspects, competitiveness, the drive, everybody has to create individually," Wopat said. "There's a whole lot more spotlight on the individual rather than the collectives. It's really bringing out your individual play and character."
Although there is not as much wear-and-tear on the body in sand volleyball, players are constantly diving for balls and making awkward lunges to prolong rallies. Don't be fooled by the sunglasses. The game demands talent, mental toughness, conditioning and versatility.
Asked to cite the biggest difference between sand and indoor, Wopat said, "Probably ball control and having different shots. There's not that much difference skill-wise, because indoor you can be a specialist at one thing. But outdoor, you have to be good at everything. You can hit the ball super-hard indoor, but if you don't know how to control the ball and put it in different places outdoor, then you're going to struggle a bit."
One thing that hasn't changed from indoor to sand is intensity. While the atmosphere is more relaxed, once matches begin, players leave it all on the sand.
"Playing-wise, when you're on the court, it's just the same as indoor," said Wopat. "We're here to win."
Stanford pulled out a tight 3-2 victory against Pacific to raise its record to a 4-1. Only three matches remain in the abbreviated season, all on home sand. The Cardinal will host USF and Sacramento State on Sunday at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., respectively. Stanford concludes the season on Tuesday against Santa Clara at 3:30 p.m.
Currently, there are 30 schools around the country playing sand volleyball - double the number from last year - and it is considered an NCAA emerging sport for women. Once the figure climbs to 40, it can become an NCAA sport.
Win or lose, Cardinal players are thrilled to be a part of the new varsity sport and think it will do nothing but bring positive exposure to sand volleyball.
"I never thought I would be here to see it happen," Williams said. "We had a huge crowd on opening day, and it's really fun and exciting to see that people are into it and are as excited as we are to see where the sport is going to go."
--By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics