The Utes hit their stride with Pac-12 beach volleyball

By John Coon
Photos Courtesy of U of U Athletics

Piling up frequent flier miles isn’t optional for Utah in beach volleyball. It’s become a way of life for the Utes ever since adding the sport before the 2017 season. Beach volleyball is the only sport where Utah doesn’t play at home. In April, the Utes hit the road each weekend for volleyball matches. They participated in four tournaments—culminating in the Pac-12 championships at month’s end—staged in Hawaii, California and Arizona.

There’s no home crowd or home court advantage—the same story as it was during the program’s debut season in 2017. The fun of playing in the sun and on the beach in a warm location is counterbalanced by an ever-present need to guard against a build-up of mental and physical fatigue.

“Beach volleyball takes so much energy,” Utah sophomore Brianna Doehrmann says. “It’s very good for conditioning, we say. Especially since we switch off between beach volleyball and indoor, there’s a little bit of balance. But after traveling for, like, a month on end for beach volleyball, you do get pretty tired.”

To keep student-athletes from buckling under continual travel, Utah is spreading out the matches. The Utes had 15 matches in 2017, with 12 played during a 10-day span in mid-March. This year, all 16 matches were played over four weekends in April.

Adding home matches into the mix isn’t a consideration for the near future. Beach volleyball is played outdoors. While it would alleviate some of the academic schedule-juggling and travel fatigue, Utah weather in the spring can be fickle at best. Rain or snow would be a constant worry for home games.

“We just haven’t really addressed that yet,” says Beth Launiere, director of volleyball who oversees both of Utah’s indoor and beach programs. “We’re not sure about the weather situation. Do we want to schedule a home event and then maybe have it snowed out? I think we’ll get there, but we’ve just decided to not worry about it yet and just hit the road.”

Playing road matches every weekend is a small price to pay for the players on Utah’s beach-volleyball roster. For them, what they get in return outweighs the sacrifices they make.

Each match features teams of two players, just like in doubles tennis. This means athletes are forced to do things in beach volleyball they don’t normally do in an indoor match, such as cover more ground and, as a result, improve ball-control skills and become better defenders.

Many of the same players play both indoor volleyball and beach volleyball for Utah. The impact on their overall skills in just two years has been immeasurable.

Sophomore Dani Barton says she likes problem-solving with her partner. “It helps a lot with defense,” she says, “like being able to read the game.”

One unique wrinkle with beach volleyball is the fact that coaches are limited to coaching during timeouts. Unlike indoor matches, they can’t shout instructions onto the court. Partners need to rely on each other to make adjustments. It helps foster better chemistry between teammates because their success hinges on communicating with each other.

“We definitely have to look at our partner more for advice,” Doehrmann Bailey Choy passing Adora Anae bumps the ball Reaching high: Dani Barton Adora Anae lunges for a ball 34 | Winners Utah • May I June 2018 says. Players have a better eye for the game because they’re also looking at what their partner can improve. “It’s really a game of communication,” she says.

A season’s worth of learning in beach volleyball showed up during indoor games in the fall. Utah finished fourth in the Pac-12 and reached the Sweet 16 round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Launiere thinks the Utes will continue to climb in both sports as the players become more accustomed to the demands of competing in both beach and indoor environments. “We’re completely different in the sand than we were a year ago,” she says. “This group is so much better than it used to be.”

Beach volleyball has emerged as one of the fastest growing NCAA sports. Utah is one of nine Pac-12 schools that sponsor the sport. A total of 55 NCAA Division I schools competed in beach volleyball in 2017.

The Utes are the first collegiate beach volleyball team in the Beehive State. For the women who spend many spring weekends on the road, it’s been rewarding to pioneer the program. “It’s awesome to build the program and start from the very beginning,” Barton says, noting how surprising it is that Utah even has a sand team. She says she’s excited the program is opening doors for women who might have never thought about playing collegiate sports.