Time to hit the sand

Time to hit the sand

Head coach Jason Kepner runs through a series of drills with Eylse Chubb (center) and Lizzie Theesfeld, who make up the Cougars No. 1 sand volleyball pair. (Lynsey Cichon/Cisternyard Sports)

When it’s 80 degrees in March, College of Charleston students know it’s time to hit the beach. Unless you’re a member of the College’s volleyball team: Then it’s time to hit the sand.

Tucked away in a newly expanded facility of sand courts off of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant, 11 Cougars are making history as one of the first teams in the country to be accredited by the NCAA to play sand volleyball at the varsity level.

For senior Elyse Chubb, who joined the Cougars before there were even whispers that the NCAA might accept the popular outdoor version of the sport into its ranks, it’s a move that is both fun and challenging.

“I had no idea that this was going to be a varsity sport (when I entered college), but I’m really happy that it is, because I love beach volleyball, and I’ve played throughout this last summer,” said Chubb, who teams with freshman Lizzie Theesfeld to form the Cougars’ top pair. “After (Emily) Shelton and I won a tournament last year, it became something I’ve been really interested in, and there is so much room for improvement.”

For head coach Jason Kepner, who has led the Cougars’ indoor team to a Southern Conference regular-season or tournament title in each of his five seasons at the College, the experience of being a pioneer for a new NCAA sport has been exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

“This has been kind of a crazy time frame, with the start of the season and not really knowing how it works yet,” Kepner said several weeks ago, as the team was still closing out its spring indoor season. “Five of the teams that added sand volleyball have all gotten new coaches, so scheduling has been difficult as everyone tries to get their staff in order. One of my staff left to take the head coaching job at one of those schools. So all of those things have kind of played into it being fun and exciting, and also nerve-wracking and crazy at the same time.”

A total of 15 Division I schools are participating in the inaugural sand season, with the College hosting three of them this weekend at the Creekside Tennis & Swim Club in Mount Pleasant for the first CofC Sand Classic. The Cougars will face Mercer on Friday, West Coast powerhouse Pepperdine on Saturday and North Florida on Sunday. Alabama-Birmingham will also compete in the four-team tournament.

Kelly Kolich goes up to spike the ball in an afternoon practice at the Creekside Tennis and Swim Facility (Lynsey Cichon/Cisternyard Sports)

Unlike its indoor cousin, which features six players on the each side of the net at a time, dual matches in sand volleyball are contested by five two-person teams from each school. The overall victory goes to the first school to wrap up three match wins. Each match is played over three sets, the first two of which are played to 21 points with the third played to 15. Teams switch ends every seven points in games to 21, and every five points in games to 15.

With only two players on each side of the net, Kepner points out that each player has much more impact on each play and each point than in the indoor game.

“You have to be competitive all the time when you are playing doubles. You have to be precise with your contact ever single time,” Kepner said. “Indoors, the ball could go back and forth over the net five times and you’ll never get a chance to touch it, and you don’t have an impact on whether your team wins or loses that point. In sand, you have that impact every single time.”

For Chubb, the biggest difference has been preparing her body to deal with the elements, as opposed to dealing with the hitting the floor.

“There are a lot more injuries in indoor than there is outdoors, because the sand really cushions your joints,” Chubb said. “So personally, I’ve felt good. I haven’t had an injury” – she reaches over to knock the wooden desk beside her, laughing – “but indoor is a lot harder on your body because you’re hitting the floor. I’d say the main difference is the conditioning, for being out in the sun and in the heat. That’s a lot different. We’re pampered, being indoor athletes, and now we’re out in the elements. It takes a lot more lung capacity, and a lot more endurance than you would need indoor.”

Well, endurance and a lot more sunscreen.

Chubb and her teammates found that out the hard way during the season-opening tournament in Winter Haven, Fla., on March 8-10.

“First, the sunscreen is the most important. I put (SPF) 90 on my face last week, and I still have a sunglasses tan,” Chubb said. “It’s also really different because there was more cramping. Because it is only two players, you have a lot more court to cover. So the amount of energy you actually expend trying to play a doubles match outside in the heat, you get tired so much quicker. We got Pedialyte because people were cramping, because we weren’t hydrated enough before the tournament. So, hydration and sunscreen were the two major issues for us that we weren’t expecting.”

Unlike this weekend’s Sand Classic, the three-team Winter Haven tournament featured dual matches on Thursday, which were used to seed all 15 teams for pairs ladder matches. The College lost its two duals, 5-0 to Florida State and 3-2 to Stetson, but Chubb and Theesfeld teamed up to finish third in the ladder competition, behind only the No. 1 and 2 teams from FSU.

“It was actually more than I expected it to be,” Chubb said. “I expected it to just be a couple or three courts, and all the teams just cycling through those courts. But it was a huge complex, with probably 14 courts. And there was a really high level of competition. It wasn’t like intrasquad matches; it was against players who had been practicing since last September. So it was a really good challenge for us.”

Every match is critical for the Cougars, because even though the NCAA will not be offering a national championship in sand volleyball this season, the American Volleyball Coaches Association will. The AVCA will select four teams – two from the East Coast, one from the West and one wild card – to compete in its Final Four in Gulf Shores, Ala., on April 28. Those four teams will automatically have their top two pairs entered into the pair competition, and the AVCA will select eight more pairs from teams that did not make the Final Four to fill out a 16-team, double-elimination bracket for the pairs national title.

Elyse Chubb(left), Lizzie Theesfeld and Kerstin Koehler all practice together in an intrasquad match at the Creekside Tennis and Swim Facility (Lynsey Cichon/Cisternyard Sports)

The NCAA currently classifies sand volleyball as an “emerging sport.” The sport has seven years to increase its roster to 40 schools – Kepner believes that 25 schools will be competing by the third year, and that the sport will only continue to grow more popular – at which point it will be accepted as a full NCAA sport, and the governing body will begin conducting its own national championships.

The NCAA’s road to adding the sport has not been a smooth one, though. Sand volleyball’s supporters had to withstand a contentious vote last January that would have stripped the sport of its “emerging” status. The sport’s opponents got 58% of the vote; they needed 62.5%. According to The New York Times’ Katie Thomas, opponents of the sport thought it would “take resources away from the indoor version of the game and place institutions in cold-weather states at a disadvantage when trying to recruit athletes.”

Kepner, who has profession experience in both forms of the sport, believes that the two versions can provide a strong complement to each other.

“I played a couple of AVP (sand) events,” Kepner said. “When I was overseas in Holland and Spain, I played sixes (indoor). For the most part, my career was a lot of sixes. I played at Penn State, and every summer I’d go home and play sand every weekend, and I’d do that all summer then do back and play indoor all fall and spring. I definitely think it kept me fresh. At the end of the indoor season, I was excited to play sand, and at the end of the sand season I was excited to go back indoors. You have something new and fresh to look forward to, so I definitely think it can be a benefit to do both.”

Chubb agrees, especially considering that of the 11 Cougars playing the sand season, eight are either freshmen or sophomores.

“The thing that is going to help indoor is that in beach, you have to have a lot of control, and you have to be able to read the game very well,” Chubb said. “I feel like the court awareness and the overall ball control, and hitting shots, that will absolutely translate to indoors for our team. With a young team, the ball control that they learn from outdoors can only help indoors.”

She also thinks that the competition that comes from having five pairs, instead of one team rotation, will help the Cougars’ competitive edge.

“There is definitely more competition for pairs than there is for indoor competition, because (indoors) you play your position, so you’re only competing with one other person,” Chubb said. “But when you’re playing in pairs, it’s five teams, and we’re all competing to be the No. 1 team, and to have the strongest lineup.

“We’ve been rotating a bit with (Nos.) 4 and 5, with someone sitting out, and I think that’s created a lot more competition. But, in the end, it’s better for our team because we have more of a competitive mentality when we go into matches. It’s ‘I earned this spot’ in addition to trying to win for the team. But we do try to keep it as team-oriented as possible, because in the end, we have to have three of our five teams win to win a dual.”

Amid all of the hectic planning and the rush to qualify for the inaugural sand season, Kepner believes that the Creekside location – a 13-mile round trip from campus that rules out walking and makes biking treacherous – was the best option. But he does acknowledge that a site so far from campus has its faults.

“Right now, we have a five-year lease with Creekside,” Kepner said. “Could it stay there long term? Sure. Could we move it somewhere else? I think that all that is up in the air and a possibility. But with the red tape and everything that you have to go through to make that work… Ideally, I’d love to have a closer location. Ideally, I’d love to find a place downtown, within walking distance, if that’s even feasible.

“But in order to be one of the first schools to be a part of it and have a facility, I felt that Creekside was very accommodating and open to the idea. They already had two courts that we could just build off of and make it as nice as we possibly can, and it was an easy way to transition into the first year and get the program rolling.

“If we feel that we need a different facility after five years, then I have five years to deal with the city and deal with Mount Pleasant, or talk to (CofC athletic director) Joe (Hull) about what’s the best thing. But we did this in a year, and I was afraid that if I tried to find a facility somewhere else, a year might not be enough to get that job done.”

But the trip out to Mount Pleasant will definitely be worth it this weekend to watch the Cougars in the Sand Classic. And if you’re going, take a tip from the pioneering players on the sand and be sure to pack your sunscreen.

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