Playing volleyball is just another day at the beach for them.
It doesn’t mean that the Saint Leo University Beach Volleyball players aren’t taking it seriously.
“It’s sandy and sunny and you get tan, so, unless you’re losing, there’s no complaints when you get to play this (sport) all the time,” said Jeanette Henderson, who is half of the team’s No. 1 duo. “I think beach volleyball is a lot more mental and I really appreciate that about the sport because that shows on the court — on the sand.”
Beach volleyball, which Saint Leo has been competing in since 2018, is a sport that may require more all-around skill than its indoor counterpart.
“Honestly, I think I had an easier time coming to beach volleyball because it was a little bit more individually focused and I could do a little bit of everything,” said Aliya Fredette-Huffman, who is Henderson’s playing partner. “With indoor, you pick one skill: you hit, you pass, you set, but here, on the sand, you can do it all — you have to do it all, which I really like because I enjoy doing all three (skills).
“Being an all-around player who can hit, set and pass is key.”
Having the full-range skill set of a volleyball player comes in handy in beach volleyball because, unlike being a gym when the team has six players on the court, sandy matches are 2-v-2. Then, each team has five pairings, similar to how collegiate tennis matches are played. A pair must win two sets to take the match and a set is won by reaching 21 points first.
Since there are only two players, placement strategy is the real road to victory in beach volleyball.
The court dimensions are slightly smaller than indoor volleyball, but with only two players on each team, there’s much more area to place drop shots on the court.
“It’s significantly different than indoor because it’s more about perfecting placement and way more about the strategy it takes,” Lions coach Natalia Koryzna said. “You have more people to rely on when indoors, but out here in the sand, with just two people, it shows the players have to have the overall skills of every position of an indoor volleyball player.
“So you’re going to see a lot more 1-on-1 play, which you won’t see indoors.”
However, a handful of Lions’ beach volleyball players also play for the indoor team, For example, Henderson, who is a Wharton High graduate, was recruited for beach volleyball, but also walked on the indoor team.
Assistant coach Emily Kalmink said recruiting beach volleyball players in Florida can be easier since it’s more likely players will be good on the beach given the abundance of them in this state.
“I transitioned to beach (volleyball) a lot earlier, but being from (New Smyrna Beach), it was right up my alley,” Fredette-Huffman added.
Saint Leo competes in the Division II level of college sports, however, according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association, “the popularity of beach volleyball has exploded over the last few years” and is “the fastest-growing NCAA sport over the last five years in Division I.”
It’s why the program is so young, but also doesn’t even have a full conference in which to hold a postseason tournament. Yet, after the team’s best season last year (22-13), Saint Leo continued those winning ways this season, finishing 15-8. The team is now headed to the Small College Beach Championships on April 14.
Last season in the same tournament, Saint Leo went 3-3 and won third in the silver bracket. This year, the Lions feel even more confident as they head to the sandy beach courts just off the shore of Lake Harris in Tavares.
“We have high expectations,” Fredette-Huffman said. “We’ve played some great teams and games and come away with some wins and also some losses, but the way the season has been going, we think we’re playing well enough to play with anyone.”
Henderson agrees, adding how close-knit the team has become in the two years under Koryzna has been crucial to their success.
“Our team chemistry is top tier,” Henderson added. “We all feel like family, like sisters and we hang out all the time together. So, it’s a lot like, even if you’re out there playing in the sand for a point or you’re not, you still feel like part of the team and want to be part of the team.”
AVCA Small College Beach Championships
When: April 14 to April 16
Where: Hickory Point Beach, 27345 State Road 19, Tavares
Details: On 21 professional-grade lighted, sand courts, universities will bring their squads of two-player teams to compete for Division II, III and NAIA Division titles.
For results or more information, visit avca.org/events/small-college-beach-champ.html.
Published April 12, 2023