The legs of Edina High School freshman Alaina Bohrer were coated in sweat and grit, with a significant smearing of blood to boot. She leaned against a fence, wiping away the residue of a day’s battles. Nearby, teammate and friend Makenna Berger, a freshman at Eden Prairie, did likewise. Both wore weary smiles, having emerged victorious from a morning of sliding, diving and rolling in the sand.
Clearly, sand volleyball is no day at the beach.
Long a fixture on the coasts, sand volleyball — beach volleyball, as it’s known in Olympic circles — is finally moving past its fun-in-the-sun reputation in the Twin Cities area and is being taken seriously as both a way to train for indoor volleyball and as a pursuit unto itself. Despite Minnesota’s landlocked locale, at least two local clubs are tapping into the benefits of playing on sand, opening a new door into a thriving club volleyball scene.
“I started playing indoor volleyball awhile back, and this is kind of a natural next thing to do,” said the 6-foot-tall Bohrer. “It really helps your indoor game.”
In 2014, the NCAA approved sand volleyball as a championship level sport, allowing colleges to award scholarships and running a national championship tournament. To Ryan Stuntz, a native of Southern California who grew up playing beach volleyball and now runs Vital Volleyball in Eden Prairie, he saw an opportunity to bring the beach to the Northern Plains and offer a unique — to Minnesota, at least — training regimen at the same time.
“We’re the only indoor club in Minnesota that offers a sand volleyball option,” Stuntz said. “I’d rather have kids doing this in the summer than going to [volleyball] camps. For the long term, sand volleyball is the best thing for them.”
The advantages of training and practicing in sand are many. Conditioning, versatility and volleyball IQ are at a premium. The unstationary nature of sand forces athletes to become more explosive and promotes agility. And knowing where the ball is headed and getting there in advance is necessary for success. To win in sand volleyball means thinking a steps ahead.
“A lot of kids in Minnesota lack those skills because they’ve only played indoors. You can get away with being a little more sloppy in indoor volleyball,” Stuntz said.
Former Gophers setter Jen Bowman is a coach for the Vital program. She believes sand is the next big step in the development of volleyball players.
“You didn’t have anything like this when I was younger,” Bowman said. “You have to pass, you have to set, you have to hit, you have to serve, you have to dig. It really hones the skills.”
Now in its second year, the sand volleyball program at Vital is already paying dividends. “I’m a lot faster,” said Alexis Matson, a libero who will be a junior at Minnetonka this year. “I’ve heard it from my coaches. I can get to balls I never used to get to before.”
Matson and Bloomington Jefferson senior-to-be Samantha Mellin teamed up to win their bracket at a recent Vital tournament at their sand volleyball facilities at the Eagles Club in Shakopee. Mellin said her development as a player as a result of playing on sand has changed her view on volleyball in general. “At first, it was to help me become a better player,” Mellin said.
Playing volleyball is in her post-high school plans, Mellin added. Just not the type she originally envisioned. “I’d like to play sand volleyball,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
On a recent sun-soaked morning at the sand courts at Drkula’s 32 Bowl in Inver Grove Heights, fun seems to be in short supply. The Surface Beach Volleyball Club, the brainchild of Eric Poppelman, a longtime coach of men’s and women’s volleyball at the collegiate and club level, is in its second week of existence. A cadre of slightly less than 20 high school-age girls are sweating through an hour of conditioning drills in the sand, the effects visible on their faces.
Lunges and burpees are interspersed with the carrying of heavy sandbags, skipping through the sand and the pulling of others using resistance bands. The girls go through a series of stations, eight in all, with short rest periods after every rotation. The workouts last for just one hour, two days a week, but that’s enough to test the mettle of the most experienced players.
“After the first day, I was sore for three days and I mean sore everywhere,” said Delilah Wolf, a setter who plays indoor volleyball for the nationally renown Northern Lights Club team and St. Paul Como Park High School. “I went into this thinking it’s going to be just as easy as indoors, but it’s not. I was kind of thinking that maybe I should only do this once a week, but I came back today, just a week later, and I can already feel how much this is helping me.”
That, said Poppelman, is the point. Between the high school season and the much longer club season, it’s easy for players to stagnate in their often-specialized roles.
“Some of these girls play 11-and-a-half months a year,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to come out and train on volleyball-specific movements at a lower impact. That should translate when they go back to their indoor high school team; they should be faster, they should be stronger, they should be quicker off the floor.”
Poppelman said the difference between his program and that of Vital Volleyball is that Surface is currently a training-only program. Most of players signed up are volleyball veterans, but he’s targeted training exercises to kids as young as 4 years old. A native of Racine, Wis., where boys’ volleyball is still prominent, he is hoping that he can entice boys to play as well.
“I want this to appeal to a wide range of players, from a beginner to an advanced collegiate player,” he said. “One of the problems that has happened to our sport is that players are starting to specialize into one-position players. If you start to fail at that position, what good are you to your team? Out here, on sand, you’re an everything player.”