Volleyball: FGCU close to adding sand volleyball as a sport


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ESTERO - The presidential nod and signing off of the Board of Trustees still is needed, but Florida Gulf Coast University will kick-start a sand volleyball program next spring, giving the school 15 sports.

"It's just a natural fit," FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh said.

In so many ways.

First, of course, is location, location, location. Southwest Florida is coated with beaches and FGCU already sports two on-campus sand courts for training.

Its coach, Dave Nichols, a member of UCLA's 1976 indoor national championship team, had a successful pro beach career while playing with and against the likes of Ron Von Hagen, Greg Lee and Wilt Chamberlain. As a graduate assistant at UCLA, Nichols tutored Karch Kiraly, the only American to win Olympic gold medals in the indoor and beach sports.

"It comes down to getting it going, seeing the sport grow, and then we'll have everything worked out with the conference on top of it," Kavanagh said.

The Eagles already train for several weeks on the sand. FGCU alum and Fort Myers native Brooke (Youngquist) Sweat, a former All-Atlantic Sun outside hitter, is one of the world's best on the sand, having won more than 20 Florida AVP tour titles.

The Eagles' volleyball program has a strong history and following.

And FGCU will join four other A-Sun teams -- Jacksonville, North Florida, Stetson and Mercer -- in picking up the sport in the spring. Other schools throughout Florida are expected to latch on.

Beach volleyball -- two players per team, rally scoring with the winner the first to take five sets -- has been a popular Olympic sport since 1996. The NCAA, which calls it sand volleyball because most matches will not be played on beaches, termed it an Emerging Sport last August, meaning 40 programs would need to be started within a decade to make it an NCAA championship sport.

It shouldn't take nearly that long.

"If it's not going to be there this year, it will be there the following year. ... You're probably looking at 100-150 schools that are going to do it," Kavanagh said.

Nichols, who lives on Bonita Beach, where he still plays the sand game and who put together a proposal for Kavanagh, can't wait.

"I'm completely biased because I just love the sand game after playing many years competitively on the beach," Nichols said. "I think it's great. It's a great game. It blends really well with indoor. I think the better you become at sand, it makes you a better player. I think they complement each other."

The NCAA projects start-up costs at $100,000-$150,000 with an operating cost of $35,000-$50,000. FGCU's investment would be just a fraction of those. The Eagles won't be able to play their matches on campus as five courts are needed, and there is not room for expansion. But Kavanagh envisions FGCU playing on Bonita and/or Fort Myers beaches, and even perhaps on Siesta Key as well as at other natural sites across the state.

Other schools will have to import 225 tons of sand to construct five 52-6 x 26-3 courts with a 9-10-foot free zone. Some will even be creating movable indoor courts.

The start-up cost for FGCU would simply include portable bleachers, uniforms (likely not bikinis as in professional beach volleyball), a few nets and poles, and 2-3 balls (sand balls are heavier than indoor ones) per player.

With one more scholarship to go to give FGCU 12 to fully fund the indoor program, none will be available, at least at first, for sand volleyball. As is the case with other schools looking to add sand, Nichols would initially coach the team and that could be a long-term thing, although he has heard that eventually the NCAA could mandate specific sand coaches.

"For me, I hope that's not the case," Nichols said. "For me, this is a labor of love. I'd love to do both."

Kavanagh and Nichols figure the operating budget, which will include travel, perhaps only in-state travel, will be between $5,000-10,000 annually.

The NCAA lists rewards as a way to grant more scholarships to female athletes, especially at football schools that struggle with the bounds of Title IX. But that's not a problem at FGCU. Other reasons the NCAA gave for adding the sport are the improvement of indoor players who spend time on the sand and the plyometric training for all athletes over a foot to 18 inches of sand.

"(Sand volleyball) requires you to be more well-rounded," Nichols said. "You can have an All-American indoor player go out on the stand and play against a 5-foot-7 all-around player and they will just destroy the taller player.

"And I think it's a great sport for fans. The sand Olympic ticket is one of the hottest tickets. It's a fun, rock 'n' roll environment."

Nichols expects the sport to be an immediate hit in Southwest Florida. The Extreme Volleyball Tour has had an event or two on Vanderbilt Beach the past few years.

"Honestly, I do," he said. "There's a lot of sand interest throughout Fort Myers, Naples, the entire West Coast here. I think we could build a good sand base. You have Brooke Youngquist-Sweat, a local kid, who's one of the best sand players in the country. She's been getting a lot of good things going -- training kids and promoting it. There's a lot of beach tournaments at the Holiday Inn on Fort Myers Beach.

"I can't wait."


-Article courtesy of Naples Daily News

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