FIU sand volleyball

FIU sand volleyball team hopes to hit right note in home opener


FIU’s sand volleyball team plays its first home match Saturday morning against Webber International.

Club music from a boom box provides a bouncy soundtrack for equally percussive volleyball sounds on the adjacent sand. This beach scene actually is set in West Miami-Dade, between the green parking garage and the outdoor basketball courts on FIU’s main campus.

And, it’s practice, not frolic, for FIU’s sand volleyball team, which plays the first home match in the program’s history Saturday morning at 9 against Webber International. FIU might kick out the jams for that one, too, a big help to those who need more than caffeine on Saturday mornings.

“Any [beach volleyball] tournament you go to, there’s always music going the whole time,” junior Jessica Mendoza said. “It’s kind of a like a vibe you get. It is like a big part of the culture.”

A different atmosphere for a sport that’s different for FIU, already ranked No. 6 among the nation’s 31 teams.

Soon after FIU athletic director Pete Garcia announced in late 2011 that the school’s sand volleyball team would be birthed in 2013, he made clear he expected to be very good quickly. Garcia figured FIU could count on the advantages of a metropolitan area loaded with beaches. Mostly, unlike other sports with which South Florida teams with talent, i.e, football and baseball, FIU wouldn’t have the disadvantage of starting decades after so many other schools establish stature and tradition.

“We’re working on tradition. For me to be able to start this program here. I’m building a tradition,” said head coach Rita Buck-Crockett, an Olympian indoor volleyball player and a former world champion beach volleyball player. “Hopefully, we can be the first program in FIU history as a Division I team to win a national championship.”

(Men’s soccer won Division II national championships in 1982 and 1984 for FIU.)

In recruiting this first class, Buck-Crockett said, “I started out with indoor players because there really wasn’t a place to recruit for beach, per se. Now, all of a sudden, there’s a big boom. My 2013 class coming in are true beach players from all over. That’s going to make a huge difference. With just the style being really, really, really the beach style. The things that we were working on were teaching indoor players how to play a beach game, where we don’t have to do that as much next year.”

Volleyball’s not volleyball. The difference isn’t just the music.

“Completely different sports,” Mendoza said. “Beach takes more athleticism because it’s two-on-two, it’s in the sand and you’re dealing with elements. It’s outside, it’s in the wind, sun. Indoor’s different because you have less space to cover – there’s six of you on the court.”

Sports management graduate student Kate Stepanova, who helped FSU to the 2011 indoor volleyball final four and 2012 sand volleyball third place, said “After sand, coming indoor, everything seems so much easier – jumping, you don’t get tired as quickly.”

FIU opened with Grand Canyon State, then faced 2012 national champion and preseason No. 1 Pepperdine, Long Beach State and Hawaii. While Pepperdine skunked FIU 5-0, the Panthers lost only 3-2 to Long Beach State and Hawaii. FIU’s top two duos, Kate Stepanova/Ksenia Sukhareva and Mendoza/Maryna Samoday, won against Long Beach and Hawaii, then faced each other in the finals of Hawaii’s 16-pair tournament.

“A lot of my friends followed up on it,” Mendoza said. “I didn’t think they would because some people say they care and they really don’t. But, a lot of people followed up on the stats and the games, ‘Wow, you guys did such a great job.’ No one knew what to expect of us because it’s a first-year program.”

Crockett said Hawaii coach Scott Wong told her, “So, the next time I see you will be at Nationals,’’ Crockett said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to get there.’ He said, ‘You’ll definitely get there.’ That, to me, from a colleague like that who is ranked above us …”

Beach volleyball gets called “sand volleyball” at the collegiate level to create an inclusive feel for programs without a coastline. Many places lack beaches. Everybody’s got a sandbox. Supersize your sandbox, add a net and some lines, and you’ve got yourself a beach volleyball court.

In 2012 and 2013, the American Volleyball Coaches Association handles the sanctioning, rankings and championships for what’s an “emerging sport” officially to the NCAA. That four-letter group will take over the sport’s officiating and championships when the number of schools playing reaches 40, which generally is expected to be next season.

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