It’s a sport sweeping the nation — and one local institution is taking advantage.
Saint Leo University is the latest Florida college to add women’s beach volleyball as a varsity NCAA sport.
Competition for the sand-based sport begins Spring 2018, as an independent (non-conference) team. It marks Saint Leo’s 20th intercollegiate sport and its 11th offering in women’s athletics; the recommendation to add beach volleyball was made by the university’s Gender Equity Committee, and approved by University President Dr. William J. Lennox Jr.
It will initially be a non-scholarship sport.
“The addition of beach volleyball will provide additional opportunities for women to compete in the Green and Gold for Saint Leo University and is a natural fit for Saint Leo athletics,” Saint Leo athletic director Francis X. Reidy said, in a statement. “Between our location in Florida and the strength of our existing indoor volleyball program, I believe beach volleyball has a bright future here at Saint Leo.”
Construction will begin this summer on a new five-court beach volleyball complex on a portion of the intramural field, adjacent to the Saint Leo Tennis Center.
The facility — expected to be the largest in Division II — is slated to be “practice-ready” this fall and “competition-ready” by January.
The complex will benefit the beach volleyball program and the university’s intramurals program, as well. There also will be opportunities to host youth, club, and collegiate events at the new beach volleyball complex, generating revenue and exposure for the university and the beach volleyball program.
Sam Cibrone, currently the Lions’ head volleyball coach, will move into a new role as director of volleyball. An additional full-time assistant coach will be added for the new beach volleyball program, while current assistant coach Carlos Ramos will work exclusively with Saint Leo’s 2017 Sunshine State Conference (SSC) champion indoor volleyball program.
The new position appears to be a seamless transition for Cibrone, the winningest coach in Saint Leo volleyball history and three-time SSC Coach of the Year.
A beach volleyball player for more than 20 years, Cibrone created the Clearwater-based Sunshine State Outdoor Volleyball Association in 2004, drawing hundreds of junior and adult teams in year-round tournaments.
He’s taking Saint Leo’s upstart sport seriously, with hopes to make it a national power — like the indoor volleyball program.
In 13 seasons as volleyball head coach, Cibrone has compiled a 255-164 record, guiding the program to eight NCAA Division II Tournament appearances, including four in a row.
“Our indoor program has a great history of being successful, and we’re going to expect the same thing from our beach program,” Cibrone said. “I want the quality to be at the same level as our indoor program, because we’re not treating this like a club.”
Besides hiring an assistant beach coach, Cibrone’s next step is filling a roster of 16 players. Several athletes from the Saint Leo indoor team are expected to join the beach program for the first year.
Cibrone’s ultimate goal, however, is to mold primarily beach-only players.
“We really want to grow this program as a separate entity,” Cibrone said. “Plus, that’s not going to help our gender equity issue if we just take the same kids and have them play two sports.”
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.
“The kid that can do everything well is a good beach player,” Cibrone said. “You don’t have to be a super phenomenal athlete; you just have to be a good volleyball player.
Beach volleyball doesn’t yet have a strong high school presence, making the recruiting process “completely different” compared to indoor.
As opposed to scouting prep teams, coaches will recruit open club competitions, such as the Dig the Beach Tournament Series in Siesta Key.
“I’m going to be going to a lot of beach tournaments and recruiting through the beach circuit, because there’s tournaments all over in Florida,” Cibrone said. “I think you’re going to see those kinds of big tournaments come to focus.”
Cibrone is also tasked with building a 16-game schedule for 2018.
Many opponents figure to come from in state, he said.
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.
Additionally, the University of Tampa and Florida Southern College have announced their intention to add the sport for Spring 2018. The growth of beach volleyball has skyrocketed in recent years since it was first approved as an “emerging sport” by the NCAA in 2009. At the time, data showed that more than 200,000 females ages 6-17 played beach volleyball, and more than 60 percent competed exclusively in the sport rather than indoor volleyball.
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.
While building a championship contender is a focus, Cibrone also wants Saint Leo’s beach players to have an enjoyable athletic experience.
“I want to make it a great experience,” he said, “because I understand they’re coming with just their academic money, and so they’re making a sacrifice.
“I think some of these programs that are not fully funded—they’re pushing the kids too hard and making it not a great experience.
“I’m going to make it fun for them, challenging and super competitive.”
Published June 6, 2017