LINCOLN — A long-discussed addition to Nebraska athletics became official Wednesday when the school announced women's sand volleyball will become the Huskers' 24th intercollegiate sport, beginning play this March.
Nebraska will be the lone participant from the middle of the country and the sole Big Ten team to field a sand volleyball club in 2013.
“We're the center of the universe for volleyball, so we may as well start it,” said Husker volleyball coach John Cook, who will also coach the sand team. “It will be very interesting to see how long it takes other schools (in the central U.S.) to start it.”
The NCAA first sanctioned sand volleyball in 2011, and 15 Division I schools participated in the inaugural spring season in 2012. Cook said around 30 teams are slated to play this spring. All of the other current programs are in the southeastern and western parts of the country.
Cook said Nebraska has been considering the addition of a sand program for several years, with the concern being additional costs of travel and scholarships. The Huskers will not have separate scholarships for the sand program, but instead run it similar to track and field where the same athletes compete in indoor and outdoor seasons. Any member of NU's court volleyball team could play on the sand club.
Assistant Dan Meske will fill the second coaching spot allotted by the NCAA for sand play.
“We have talked a great deal about our vision for sand volleyball,” Cook said in a press release. “We plan to start small and grow as the sport continues to develop. We understand the challenges in terms of our location, but we have a good plan on how to manage our sand volleyball team and grow with the sport.”
Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst said while the majority of discussion around a sand volleyball program happened before he was hired, the idea really gathered momentum in recent weeks.
“We are excited to sponsor a sport that is beginning to emerge on the national level, and plan to grow with the sport in the coming years,” Eichorst said in the release. “Our volleyball program has a remarkable record of success over a long period of time, and we hope to add to that legacy through our sand volleyball team in the years ahead.”
Cook said he gave a presentation to Eichorst on the merits of a sand program, citing minimal cost, increased practice time and a boost to recruiting. The Huskers will have their first sand practice Thursday and play their entire season at a location in southern California during spring break in March, when they will face established sand programs Pepperdine, USC, Long Beach State, UCLA and Florida State.
The team will also play its four-week indoor spring exhibition season as scheduled and not take part in the AVCA's informal national sand volleyball championships in May.
“There's a buzz around our team that I've never seen before this time of year,” Cook said. “They're buzzing, they're chattering. Our meetings are a buzz. Some of them will be so far out of their comfort zone, it will be good for them.”
The Huskers won't host any sand competitions this season, but Cook said he hopes to host matches in 2014 at either the team's indoor sand court at the Hawks Center or an alternate site. Cook's ideal vision of sand volleyball would be to eventually build an indoor sand court at NU's new home in the Devaney Center, where the indoor team will begin play this fall.
Of the current Huskers, recent Tennessee transfer Kelsey Robinson and freshman Alexa Strange have decorated sand volleyball backgrounds, as does incoming freshman Justine Wong-Orantes, who will arrive this summer.
Cook said sand volleyball rewards skill development over size and strength, and demands more all-around players. It's common to see one taller player paired with a quicker, smaller partner. The coach used a hypothetical pairing of 6-foot-5 opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis and 5-6 defensive specialist Paige Hubl as an example.
In terms of recruiting, Cook said the Huskers' pursuit of a sand program likely helped sway Robinson to Lincoln after she transferred from Tennessee last month, and being the Midwest's lone sand program probably wouldn't hurt Nebraska's desirability as the game continues to grow in popularity.
“It's going to give those kids that love volleyball more opportunities to play,” Cook said. “Every recruit we've talked to the last couple years have asked if we're going to start a sand team.”
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