Brooke Turner had her fair share of options to play indoor volleyball coming out of Gaither High School.
But, none could match what Saint Leo University offered: an intercollegiate beach volleyball program.
“I wanted to come here to play both,” Turner said.
“And, it’s also close to home, too.”
Turner, a freshman, is one of 16 players on Saint Leo’s inaugural beach volleyball team.
Like others, she is a crossover athlete who also plays for Saint Leo’s indoor team, as an outside hitter.
Also like her peers, she’s trying to learn the many nuances of the beach sport — from hitting and passing, to its tempo and rapid-fire decision-making.
“It’s just a lot different,” Turner said of beach volleyball, acknowledging she played some recreational matches throughout high school.
“I feel like there just needs to be a little bit more hustle on the beach. It’s harder to run on the sand than on the court with shoes,” she said.
Beach volleyball is also a new competitive realm for Jamee Townsend, who spent four years as a libero on Saint Leo’s indoor squad from 2013 to 2016.
Now a graduate student at Saint Leo, Townsend was able to join the beach team, as NCAA bylaws allow student-athletes to play a fifth year in a different sport.
“I’ve always had an interest in training for beach,” said Townsend, noting she casually played in some offseason beach tournaments, but never seriously trained for them.
“It’s something I feel like I can play forever, versus indoors, which is really hard to play when you’re older. There’s not as much availability in (indoor) pickup games and stuff, so I was interested, and it just worked out that I was able to join.”
For Townsend, “coming out of retirement” to play a new sport has been a challenge physically — but also an invigorating venture.
“It was really hard — still is hard to keep my endurance up — but being a libero in college I wasn’t allowed to hit, so now I’m getting to attack and do a lot more components of the game than I did in indoor, so that’s exciting for me. I’m learning how to block again and doing things that I didn’t get to do in indoor,” Townsend said.
Last May, the university announced the addition of beach volleyball as its 20th sport and 11th in women’s athletics, initially as a nonscholarship offering.
Following that was the completion of a five-court beach volleyball complex — believed to be the largest in Division II — on a portion of the intramural field, adjacent to the Saint Leo Tennis Center.
Beach practices began in January, led by assistant beach volleyball coach Erik Peterson.
The Lions’ first game is March 17 — a tri-match against Florida Southern College and Stevenson (Maryland) University, in Lakeland.
Slowly but surely the upstart program is coming along, the beach volleyball coach said.
“Sometimes we have some great practices, and then sometimes we forget how to do everything which is exactly part of it,” Peterson said.
“There’s some very different concepts and things that we’re trying to get them to comprehend and understand. It’s just a lot of the actual application takes some time and some reps.”
“Out here (on the beach), we don’t have the ability to hide all the deficiencies of indoor where you’re very specialized. For them, they have to pass, they have to set, they have to attack, they have to serve, they have to block, they have to defend, so they’re literally being asked to perform all of those skillsets fairly proficiently — and a lot of it’s new,” Peterson said.
Beach volleyball only calls for two players from one team to be on the court during matches. Both players must work together and become jack-of-all-trades and dominate on many fronts, including passing, setting and hitting. Indoor volleyball, however, calls for players to be much more specialized.
Even with a steep learning curve, Peterson said the team has maintained a positive attitude throughout lessons and practices.
“It’s very easy for indoor players to come out to the beach and get very frustrated because there are those significant speed bumps. They kind of just work through it, and they don’t let things weigh them down when they’re getting frustrated. They kind of bounce back pretty quick and always stay mentally dialed in,” Peterson said.
Players also are encouraged by strides made in the last several weeks.
“We’re just now getting to the point where we can be comfortable and be competitive when we play doubles. It was a lot of training and getting back to basics,” Townsend said.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot better, and everyone is ready everyday,” Turner said.
“Everyone enjoys coming to practice, and they’re just excited so it kind of shows, and we’ve gotten better already in a month just practicing.”
Saint Leo is one of four Sunshine State Conference institutions to now offer beach volleyball, joining the University of Tampa and Florida Southern University as the three newcomers. Eckerd College has a program, too.
Within Florida, a total of 10 institutions competed in beach volleyball during the 2017 season: Eckerd College, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida State, Jacksonville, Stetson, North Florida, Webber International and Warner.
At the start of the 2016-17 academic year, a total of 66 NCAA member institutions had either added the sport or announced their intention to do so. The NCAA added a national collegiate championship for beach volleyball as its 90th championship in January 2015, after a target of 40 institutions had added the sport.
Peterson is no stranger to the sand-based sport. He’s been deeply involved with USA Sand Volleyball since 2007 and previously served as head coach for beach volleyball at Division I programs, such as Texas Christian University and the University of Central Florida. Other stops include the University of Oklahoma and the University of South Florida, as an indoor volleyball assistant coach.
With a schedule that includes fellow Sunshine State Conference foes and Division I programs, such as Florida International and Jacksonville University, Peterson said compiling a record of at least .500 in Year 1 “would be a nice measuring stick.”
“I think our biggest thing is trying to just get them to really buy into the process,” Peterson said.
“For this being such a new program and these being such new athletes, I think it’s really kind of hard to put a significant, quantifiable goal. It’s going to be more of just really looking at the growth, and each more individual and personal goals versus a team goal,” the coach added.
Cultivating an upbeat, energetic environment for home matches is another objective in Year 1, Peterson said.
It shouldn’t be too tough, as the Lions brand-new facilities — and imported bleachers — are squarely situated among other athletic complexes and provide for easy walking distance from one Saint Leo sport to the next.
“It’s such a unique type of atmosphere for beach volleyball versus a lot of these other sports that are very rigid in structure,” Peterson said.
“There’s communication, there’s heckling, the crowd can get involved. There are all these different exterior things that are happening — there’s music playing the whole time — so it’s just going to be a really cool atmosphere when we have the opportunity to host home matches, and get the fans and the students excited,” Peterson said.
2018 Saint Leo Beach Volleyball roster
Annabella Arcari, freshman (Shelby Township, Michigan/Eisenhower High School)
Avery Bradshaw, sophomore (Tampa/Steinbrenner High School)
Paloma Da Silva, senior (Pocos De Caldas, Brazil/Park University Missouri)
Allie Daul, freshman (Grayslake, Illinois/Grayslake Central High School)
Anna Garrett, freshman (Merritt Island, Florida/Merritt Island High School
Dallas Jasper, sophomore (Annapolis, Maryland/Broadneck High School)
Jenya Kruglova, senior (Moscow, Russia/St. Petersburg College)
Victoria Omoregie, freshman (Tampa/Newsome High School)
Maddy Powell, senior (Tampa/ Steinbrenner High School)
Ashley Quero, freshman (Hialeah, Florida/Palmer Trinity School)
Fabiola Rosado, freshman (Lakeland/McKeel Academy of Technology)
Britt Sederholm, senior (Ogden, Utah/Saint Joseph Catholic School)
Jamee Townsend, grad student (Plant City/Strawberry Crest High School)
Brooke Turner, freshman (Tampa/Gaither High School)
Reggie Van Devender, sophomore (Phoenix, Arizona/Seton Catholic Preparatory)
Nina Vattovaz, freshman (Trieste, Italy/Liceo Artistico-Alessandro Vittoria)
Published February 28, 2018