Wednesday, May. 18, 2011

Beach fever hits Triangle volleyball courts

BY TERI SAYLOR - Correspondent

Raleigh may be two hours from the surf and dunes, but beach fever raged last weekend as nearly 200 volleyball players from all over North Carolina battled it out on the sand courts at the Jaycee Park during a U.S. Beach Junior tournament.

Beach volleyball recalls eye-candy visions of swimsuit-clad buff bodies, but when the U.S. women's and men's beach volleyball teams won gold in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing people took a more serious look at the sport.

Now the wave is growing, and some girls from the Triangle Volleyball Club have embraced the sport as a way to have fun and improve their skills.
Victoria Phillips, 17, makes a play during Saturday's USA Beach Volleyball Junior Tour stop at Jaycee Park. - TERI SAYLOR

Sasha Karelov loves volleyball. It's her sport. And after playing for more than half her life, she admits she's pretty good at it.

Four years ago, Sasha took her game outside. She connected with her club volleyball teammate Victoria Phillips and jumped onto the beach.

"We played, but we weren't very good back then," said Sasha, who is a 16-year-old sophomore at Leesville Road High School. "We just played for fun."

Athletes like Sasha, who want to reach a high level in the sport, don't stop at fun. She's in it to win, and mostly succeeds on the indoor courts.

It took one trip to the AAU Junior Olympic Nationals last year to both humble her and fire her up.

"That was intense beach volleyball," she said. "But I did pretty well."

She and her partner finished fifth in their age division.

Beach volleyball, rooted in West Coast culture, is making its way east. Local volleyball promoters are hoping to ride the wave of popularity and grow the sport in the Triangle.

The NCAA has made beach volleyball an official part of its Division I athletic programs. Last year, more than 3,100 boys and girls from 17 United States regions participated in events all across the country, according to the USA Beach Volleyball's website.

This weekend, for the first time, the Raleigh area became a spoke in the beach volleyball wheel by hosting one of 25 U.S. Beach Junior Tour events scheduled for 2011.

The Carolina Open fielded more than 85 teams from across North Carolina, said event coordinator Mark Nalevanko. In addition to Raleigh's Jaycee Park, tournament action took place at North Cary Park on May 14.

Nalevanko, a coordinator with vh1vball, a local recreational volleyball organization, started the beach program for kids by accident five years ago.

"I just happened to stumble across what was going on with junior beach volleyball through USA Volleyball and AAU," he said. "It perked my interest as I thought it was something I wish was around when I was a kid."

Nalevanko and a colleague, Jason Williams, hold weekly instruction and free play during the spring.

"We started three tournament events and have built on this ever since with participation basically doubling every year," he said.

Last year, his tournaments averaged 40 to 50 teams per event.

Victoria Phillips is a believer.

A beach volleyball court her parents installed in their back yard has become a gathering place and training ground for her club teammates, who are discovering the fun of taking their game from the indoor courts to the sand.

Victoria, 17, a junior at Cardinal Gibbons High School, started playing beach volleyball two years ago as a way to become a stronger indoor player, but ended up falling in love with it.

"I love the sport because it gives me a chance to play different positions," she said. "Playing beach gives you a good connection with your partner. Sasha and I are equally competitive, and we love running the show."

Katie McCullough of Apex and her partner Kati Smith of Raleigh are 13 years old, best friends and beach volleyball teammates.

Beach volleyball is a lot more fun than the indoor version, Katie said.

"You get to touch the ball more. It's tougher to run and jump on sand, but when you dive for the ball on sand, it doesn't hurt as much (as on a hard court)," she said.

For Kati Smith, who thrives on pressure, the sport is a little too laid back.

"People take indoor volleyball more seriously. The beach environment is not as pressurized, and it's fun," she said. "I like indoor volleyball better, but after I got used to playing beach, I was able to put more aggressiveness into it."

Nalevanko is a happy man.

"It's fulfilling to see how the interest in beach volleyball amongst juniors has just taken off," he said. "While most of the players have volleyball experience from playing indoors, very few had specific beach volleyball experience. But for most they pick it up quickly and it becomes really fun."

Victoria Phillips, who plans to play beach volleyball as a high level amateur in the future, has committed to play indoors for UNC-Wilmington after high school.

It's a good fit.

She likes having a beach in her back yard.