March 4, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
What if going to a Gamecock athletics event was like a day at the beach? It can be. South Carolina sand volleyball offers a unique atmosphere unlike any other venue on campus.
"The basis for beach volleyball is the beach and high level athletes playing a sport at a high level under the sun," South Carolina head coach Moritz Moritz said. "There's music playing. It's really a festive and inclusive kind of environment. We love the fact that our fans can be right beside the courts and, in some ways, have an interaction with the student-athletes. That's a major component of it. There is space where kids can run around out there, so there is a huge family component."
Sand volleyball played its first season as a varsity sport at South Carolina last spring and will become an NCAA championship sport in 2016. For year two at South Carolina, Moritz is excited about the direction the program is going on the court as well as with the game-day atmosphere.
"It's beach volleyball in the SEC," Moritz said. "It's super important to me that we represent that the right way. With everything that the administration is building here at the university in the athletics department, we need to be consistent with how we represent our sports. We're so fortunate to have the facility that we do and the support from the administration. We want to make sure we give it back the right way."
There are bleachers, but fans can also bring their own chairs and blankets. Instead of feet on the floor at basketball, you might be able to dip your toes in the sand while you watch. In trying to create the right vibe at home events, Moritz and assistant coach RJ Abella tried to draw on their experience of attending other matches, including the national championships the year before.
"It was pretty amazing to see where we ended up," Moritz said. "The national championship is very well-attended. For us to be able to walk in, and on the first night last year, to have the environment that we did, was huge. It has to be something that encompasses both the beach volleyball culture, but then also embrace the high level SEC athletics as well. That's the direction we started off with."
Senior Paige Wheeler spent three seasons with the Gamecock indoor volleyball team and is ready to begin her second year with the sand volleyball program. While fans may still be trying to figure out the rules and differences between the sand and indoor game, they're definitely on board with their support.
"It's really cool because a lot of times the younger girls will sit right up at the edge of the sand," Wheeler said. "It's really cool to hear them say your name and be right there cheering for you. It is a different atmosphere. People have towels and beach chairs. It's unique with the music playing the entire time. Sometimes you don't notice the music because you're focused on the match, but it definitely makes it more fun. It keeps us relaxed. Coaches sometimes will play different genres of music in practice to see how we react."
"The environment is very different in sand volleyball because it's not just one court going at one time," added junior Sarah Blomgren, who has also plays on both the indoor and sand volleyball teams. "You have multiple courts going at the same time, and the music's playing, but it's not a distraction. It is a little strange at first when you're serving and you hear the fans sitting right behind you saying `go Sarah,' but I love having all the people out here and being so close. It's just a really good environment."
Atmosphere can only take you so far, and fans want to see success on the court as well. As more and more schools in the state and the SEC add sand volleyball as a varsity sport, recruiting high level student-athletes from around the country is as competitive as any other sport.
"A lot of the younger student-athletes now are coming up in this sport and so the events that they've played in are structured this way," Moritz said. "So the comfort level is there for them. For some of the crossover players who have more indoor volleyball experience, there is a little bit of a transition to be made. It's a better environment in some ways because even though it's just as competitive as indoor, it's a little more relaxed."
"We're going to get more wins as we get more experience and develop into better volleyball players. The big thing for us is learning and adapting day to day. I love the sport because you never know what you're going to get."
One of the reasons the sport has caught on in recent years is due to the success of the USA national team.
"For us to be able to build a collegiate sport off of that momentum is huge," Moritz said. "It's something different too. Indoor volleyball is maybe the second largest junior level sport, next to soccer. So there are a ton of kids playing. Now here's another avenue that gives an opportunity to get away from some of the specialization that's happening on the indoor side. Here, you have to do everything. You have to be a good ball control player. You have to be a good setter. You have to be a good attacker. You're more well-rounded as a volleyball player in that sense."
LSU is the only other SEC school currently fielding a sand volleyball team at the varsity level, but more may be adding the sport soon. Year to year improvement is vital to keeping the momentum established in year one. Unlike the indoor game, sand volleyball student-athletes must adapt to varying playing conditions.
"Our highlight is seeing our student-athletes learn, develop and improve," Mortiz said. "Winning is the by-product. We're going to get more wins as we get more experience and develop into better volleyball players. The big thing for us is learning and adapting day to day. I love the sport because you never know what you're going to get. It's not always going to be 80 degrees and perfect. There are days where there are 20 and 30 mile per hour wind gusts, or it's raining. So you have to see who is going to adjust and be better that day under those conditions."
More than 1,100 fans attended the first home match last year against Oregon, and despite pouring rain, more than 500 piled into the sand volleyball facility located beside Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field for a match against the College of Charleston. Moritz and his staff are looking at ways to not only improve the team, but the total fan experience.
"We realized last year that with this great facility we have with five courts going on at one time, it goes so fast," Mortiz said. "So now we want to think of ways to make it an event which lasts more than 45 minutes. That's just on the cusp of a little too short. What we're doing this year is thinking of ways for fans to engage with teams as they're competing and then how that contributes to what's taking place in the match. Then we try to educate the fans on that."
With continued success and attention to proper marketing, Moritz is excited about his courts being just as popular as other South Carolina home venues.
"I want to see what we did last year against Oregon," Moritz said. "I want to pack the area where our fans are for every match because no one else does that. I don't think anyone can claim what we had for our first weekend last year. I want to do that in every match we compete. That's the neat thing about our community and our fans - we have that support."
With the 2015 season opening on Saturday, March 7, Moritz is excited for the Gamecocks and their fans to get together for year two.
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