With a week to go until Bradenton Christian’s first beach volleyball season commences, it doesn’t feel like beach season at Tom Bennett Park and Playground Pavilion.
The sun is out, but the temperature is fighting to crack the 60s and the wind is making it tough to control the ball. The sand is cool on bare feet.
The Panthers players pull into the parking lot in waves — most driven by their parents — and step out of SUVs and minivans with jackets pulled over practice jerseys. For now, Tom Bennett Park, located almost 10 miles from Bradenton Christian School’s campus, is the only practice ground the program has, and the Panthers only get access twice a week.
So they’ll have to make do.
Head coach Andrea Kneser, who serves the same role with Bradenton Christian’s indoor team, pulls everyone together for a huddle before assigning team members to courts. Most are still learning beach volleyball fundamentals, so one court is for basic serving and return drills. On the other court, Kneser is providing more nuanced instruction for more experienced players, the ones who will be on the court Thursday when Bradenton Christian plays the first beach volleyball match in school history.
“I knew I had girls that were interested, but I tried to get creative,” Kneser said. “Because club volleyball — a lot of girls play that, but a lot of girls don’t and at Bradenton Christian we athlete share, so what better way to add a sport for the school and to get these girls playing in the offseason?”
Beach volleyball has had a small presence in Florida high schools for a handful of years, but been largely limited to disparate competitions scattered across the state.
The Sunshine State Athletic Conference is changing that with this first season of sanctioned beach volleyball. The Panthers are Manatee County’s only representative in the league, although Cardinal Mooney is also fielding a team. Bradenton Christian’s season begins Thursday against Seffner Christian at the Realize Bradenton’s Riverwalk beach volleyball courts, where Bradenton Christian will play its three home games this season.
Kneser has pushed for a beach program since taking over as Bradenton Christian’s volleyball coach during the summer of 2015. Kneser was a professional beach volleyball player and once qualified for the AAU Junior Olympic Games.
In Florida’s coastal communities, in particular, the beach is a fixture for any competitive volleyball player. Nearly every weekend during the summer on Siesta Key, the Association of Volleyball Professionals will roll out somewhere between 50 and 100 nets for tournaments. All competitors need to take part is a sponsor willing to support their team.
On the simplest level, though, Kneser knows beach volleyball is more popular to the casual fan. The volleyball stars at the Summer Olympics every four years are beach players such as Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings or Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser. Beach volleyball is faster paced and more spectator friendly.
“There’s a lot of girls who have never played indoor before and are coming out to play outdoor,” said Madison Allen, an outside hitter during the fall. “Hopefully, for next year there will be an excitement for it and they’ll play indoor.”
Only four varsity players from the Bradenton Christian’s most recent indoor season are playing beach volleyball — three others have basketball obligations and one is injured — leaving the Panthers with a young core Kneser hopes can develop while the veterans get the bulk of the playing time. Each team match consists of three two-on-two, best-of-three matches. Each game is played to 21, which will let Bradenton Christian’s experienced players carry the game burden while a de facto junior varsity team develops during practice.
More broadly, the SSAC sees its setup as a potential template should the Florida High School Athletic Association opt to one day sanction beach volleyball. The SSAC is following USA Volleyball rules with players using the honor system and marks in the sand serving as reference points. It’s not a particularly expensive sport for the 22 schools, with volleyballs, uniforms and court rentals, for schools without courts of their own, as the only costs.
“I think we would be a good template for anybody that wanted to do this,” SSAC beach volleyball commissioner Jim Hoffman said. “We are keeping things very positive. We’re making sure that this is very player oriented.”
Hoffman acknowledges there will almost certainly be tweaks on the horizon. The 22 schools competing vary wildly in sizes, with private schools such as Bradenton Christian sharing a conference with public schools, such as Leesburg, making it difficult to crown a centralized champion despite how few teams there are.
A year or two down the road, it could all make more sense. Hoffman expects the number of beach volleyball teams in the state to double by next spring and predicts it will become difficult for the FHSAA to ignore the sport’s growth.
Team match consists of three matches of two-on-two, Olympic-style beach volleyball.
Individual match is best-of-three games.
Each game played to 21 points.
Scoring is same as indoor volleyball.
Each side can touch the ball three times before the ball is played over the net.
Varsity roster consists of eight players.
Matches are self-officiated.
Coaches are allowed to coach players only during timeouts.