When his oldest daughter, Rachael, was in middle school, Rick Palmateer would watch her play volleyball. Like other parents, he would cheer and offer support.
But the more he saw, the more he began to understand why she loved the game. So, he decided to kick off his shoes and started playing beach volleyball.
Rachael turned 20 not long ago, and in the approximately seven years since Rick took up the sport, his joy of it has grown. And now, as the first-ever high school beach volleyball coach in Marion County, he is leading the team at St. John.
“(Saints’ assistant) Bert Thomas and (former St. John indoor coach) Jason LaBorde both knew beach volleyball was my passion and approached me (about the job),” Palmateer said. “Bert recommended me to the school’s (athletic director, John Bauman), and I jumped on the opportunity.
“I think (having beach volleyball as a high school sport) is long overdue.”
Palmateer said he would like to see beach volleyball continue to grow in popularity, and since success often breeds imitation, St. John is a good place for the county to start.
The winners of FHSAA Class 2A state indoor championships in two of the last three years, the Saints boast a lot of talent. But it isn’t as if Palmateer could just roll a ball out to each of his three teams of two (called “St. John 1”, “St. John 2” and “St. John 3”) and say “go get ’em.”
“I had never played before,” said senior Kaylee Thomas, the Star-Banner’s overall player of the year as well as the Florida Dairy Farmer’s 2A player of the year in the most recent indoor season. “It’s been really exciting because it is helping me work on a lot of things (for when I join the University of Alabama as a preferred walk-on next year).”
Thomas pointed specifically to positive changes in her speed, agility and knowledge of the court, adding that the first few times she jumped while on a beach, she didn’t exactly feel like the quick and powerful leaper who pounded out 19 kills in the Saints’ 3-set title-match sweep of Winter Park’s The Geneva School on Nov. 11.
“When I would go up to hit, it was like I had never played before,” Thomas said.
That’s where the star got help from her coach and her teammate on St. John 1, junior Gigi Chiaramonte.
Having spent much of the early part of her life in Tampa, Chiaramonte said she began playing beach volleyball as a fifth-grader. And when St. John announced it would field a team in 2017, Chiaramonte said she was excited in great part because “I’d get to help show the girls the game.”
That helps a good bit during matches.
There, unlike in the indoor version, coaches must stay quiet except during timeouts.
“The players have to work in tandem with one another and correct things on their own,” said Palmateer, a Marion County Sheriff’s Office detective since 2013. “And if they need to call a timeout, they have to do it on their own. I can’t call it.”
Thomas said Chiaramonte has taken charge when needed.
“She knows all the rules, so I didn’t have to work with a person who was new to it like me,” Thomas said. “After the first match, she told me what I had done wrong, and I worked on it to get (it right) the next time.”
So far, it’s all going well for the Saints, whose three teams practice on Mondays and Wednesdays at The Wellness Center (4817 NE 2nd Loop) and are each 2-0 with victories against South Daytona Warner Christian and Leesburg.
Not yet recognized by the FHSAA, beach volleyball is overseen by the Sunshine State Athletic Conference. There, St. John competes in a division against Windermere Prep, Montverde, Master’s Academy and International Community. The Saints’ next matches is scheduled to take place against Windermere and International Community on April 3 in Tavares.
St. John also will play matches on April 6 and 18 before competing in the SSAC Beach Volleyball Championships on April 24 in Hickory Point.
Palmateer said he would like to see this as a starting point for Marion County.
“It is a great sport,” Palmateer said. “I hope in the next two or three years we will see other schools start teams for girls and boys everywhere.
“I think once more people see how much we enjoy it, they will want to play, too.”