Cardinal Mooney and Bradenton Christian trying beach volleyball this spring
Brooke Picchi positioned herself in the sand lining one of the beach volleyball courts at Bee Ridge Park on Thursday afternoon.
She threw her hands behind her back and flashed a quick signal to her teammate, Annie Shaw, who was making her way to the service line. Picchi also threw in some advice.
“Watch the wind.”
The elements weren’t a factor the last time Picchi and Shaw represented Cardinal Mooney High in a volleyball match. Sunglasses and suntan lotion weren’t required, either.
High school beach volleyball has arrived this spring — though not by way of the Florida High School Athletic Association. Rather, the independent Sunshine State Athletic Conference has put a league together, and 22 schools are taking part, including Bradenton Christian and Cardinal Mooney, indoor rivals who met for under the sun for the first time Thursday.
It was the third match for the Panthers and first for the Cougars. For Picchi, a senior, it was well worth the wait.
“This is so nice,” Picchi said while standing barefoot in the sun-splashed sand. “We have so much fun.”
Picchi’s first coach at Mooney was Kristen Batt-Rohr, an accomplished beach player who now coaches the women’s sand volleyball team at Grand Canyon University in Arizona. Consequently, this year’s senior class of Cougars wanted its own beach team since freshman year.
Enter Chad Sutton, who spent the fall coaching Mooney’s indoor team after spending five years at Sarasota High. A beach player himself, Sutton hoped he would see the day when sand volleyball made its way to the high schools. When the SSAC announced in the fall that it was starting a league, Sutton was happy to hear Mooney’s administration was also into it.
“Most of my indoor players play beach, so we knew it was going to be a hit, regardless,” said Sutton, whose roster consists of 14 players. “We just wanted to make sure the school could take this on and handle it. A lot of support went into this.”
Aside from the obvious, there are differences between outside and indoor volleyball, beginning with the size of the half courts — a beach volleyball square is eight meters and the indoor square is nine.
Beach volleyball is played between teams of two rather than six and there are no substitutions. Matches use rally scoring and are best-of-three sets played to 21, though the third set is played to 15. Similar to high school tennis matches, sand matches are officiated by the players.
And each team fields four pairs per match, though only the top three pairs, or seeds, count toward the final results. Thursday, Mooney opened its season with a 3-0 win over Bradenton Christian.
“I was pretty pumped to have it,” Sutton said. “I think it’s one of the futures of girls sports, and I just wanted to make sure that we position ourselves as a school that wants to have elite volleyball, and we want our volleyball players to know that we have beach and indoor.”
You won’t find any sand courts on Mooney’s campus, so some girls were wondering where the school’s newest team would practice and play. Now that the Cougars have found at a home at Bee Ridge Park, Picchi expects the sport to take off at Mooney.
“It will definitely attract more people. Right now, people are a little hesitant because we didn’t know for sure what the game-plan was,” Picchi said. “Now we’re sold. We’re having so much fun.”
Mooney is a member of the conference’s Gulf Division along with The Villages and Fort Myers Bishop Verot.
Bradenton Christian, which also competes in SSAC during football season, is in the Bay Division with Seffner Christian, Indian Rocks Christian, Tampa Carrollwood Day and Spring Hill Bishop McLaughlin. The Panthers field a young roster because the school’s girls basketball team, which includes a number of volleyball players, went to the final four last winter. Most of the volleyball/basketball girls are spending the spring playing travel ball.
Andrea Kneser, who, like Sutton, coaches her school’s indoor team, decided to open up the sand volleyball season to Bradenton Christian’s middle-school players. More than 20 players showed up for tryouts, Kneser said, and while three of her indoor varsity players have made the transition to sand — Maddie Allen, McKenzie James and Emily Eurice — the coach is excited about the youngsters filling out the BCS roster.
“These are 7th- and 8th-grade girls. Can you imagine what they’re going to be like when they’re 10th, 11th, and 12th graders?” Kneser said. “So it’s not a bad problem to have at all. And a lot of these girls, they don’t play club. It’s great way to condition them for volleyball.”
The Panthers practice at Tom Bennett Park in Bradenton and play home matches along the picturesque Riverwalk, which Kneser said drew rave reviews from the coaches and players from Seffner Christian.
“And we didn’t lose any balls in the river,” Kneser said with a laugh.
Bradenton Christian, Cardinal Mooney and the 20 other schools competing this spring head to Hickory Point Recreation Park in Tavares on Saturday, April 22, for the SSAC state tournament. Every team, regardless of record, qualifies for postseason during this maiden season.
Will that change over time? Perhaps. Right now, Sutton is happy he has a chance to find out.
“Everybody is trying to figure this out,” he said. “The conference, they’ve been very up front and honest ... ‘Look, this is a growing thing, we’re going to grow together.’ For us, we went into it, and there’s a lot of questions that are unanswered. But we know we want it. So let’s go be a part of it and help grow it.”