All eleven returning players from UW’s Pac-12 Champion indoor team are in the second week of practice as the Huskies’ inaugural sand volleyball team. Here are answers to questions you may have on what this all will be like.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – This way to the beach.
The Huskies’ powerhouse, Pac-12-champion and NCAA Final Four volleyball team has hit the sand for the inaugural season of Washington sand volleyball. Last month, UW Director of Athletics Scott Woodward announced sand volleyball as the newest Husky intercollegiate sport, with the first season to begin in April. Monday was the start of the second week of practices for the 11-women team, all of whom were on UW’s indoor team that reached the national volleyball semifinals.
Washington joins Oregon, USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, California and Stanford as the Pac-12 teams with sand volleyball programs.
Sand volleyball competitions involve five teams of two players each playing best-of-three-sets matches. The first two sets are to 21, win by two, with a third, deciding set if needed to 15, win by two. The rally scoring of indoor volleyball is in effect on the sand, with points awarded to the team that wins each play whether or not it served. The squad that wins the majority of the five matches wins the overall match.
The Huskies are practicing three times per week, each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the first practice at an indoor sand facility in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle, south of downtown. They are holding offseason, “open-gym,” indoor-volleyball workouts and weight lifting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The “Sand Huskies’” only two matches of this introductory season are in Portland, Ore., on April 12, a Saturday, outdoor doubleheader against Oregon and Boise State.
The Huskies are planning for an outdoor exhibition, in the form of an intersquad scrimmage, for local fans tentatively on April 5, at an outdoor site to be determined.
Keegan Cook grew up playing sand volleyball in Pleasanton and Moraga, Calif., just east of San Francisco Bay. He spent six years as an assistant volleyball coach at Saint Mary’s, his alma mater, and helped the Gaels win their first West Coast Conference championship until McLaughlin hired him in April of 2013 to be his assistant at Washington. In addition to his indoor duties with the Gaels, Cook, a member of the Saint Mary’s Class of 2007, was the director of operations for the sand volleyball team at Saint Mary’s last year just before coming to UW (NCAA rules allow only two true indoor assistant coaches for sand volleyball teams).
Cook is the new sand volleyball coach, with UW Director of Volleyball Jim McLaughlin overseeing the program. I sat down with Cook for a half hour last week before the second practice in the history of Washington sand volleyball. Here is what the new coach of the 22nd and newest Huskies sport explained about what UW sand volleyball is -- and where the Dawgs and the NCAA are headed with it:
SO WHAT KIND OF PLAYER WILL REIGING NATIONAL INDOOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR KRISTA VANSANT BE ON SAND THIS SPRING? SHE IS, AFTER ALL, FROM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND MUST HAVE PLAYED ON A BEACH OR THREE?
Cook: “She’s a quick learner, I’ll put it at that. When she does things the right way on sand the results are similar to what we see indoor.
“She’s a good volleyball player. And Jim and Tui (Huskies assistant Leslie (Tuiasosopo) Gabriel) have recruited volleyball players of the type that what they do indoor will prepare them for what they need to be successful on sand. The players they recruit have sand volleyball experience. They are good, all-around volleyball players. They are good athletes. The same things that make them great indoors are going to make them great on the sand. Certainly, there is a learning curve in order for them to catch up to some really good players that play sand exclusively. But they have the tools to do that.”
HOW NEW WAS THE FIRST DAY OF PRACTICE?
Cook: “I have a bigger role now than any time when I was at Saint Mary’s, so I think I was more nervous than the girls. They were excited.
“At Saint Mary’s I took care of a lot of the courts, securing facilities, film and all the sorts of ins and outs of it – but not the actual, on-sand coaching, per se. So this is a much bigger role here.”
WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE OBJECTIVE UW SAND VOLLEYBALL WANTS TO ACHIEVE? HOW MUCH IS IT PRIMARILY OFFSEASON TRAINING AND COMPETITION OUTLETS FOR THE HUSKIES’ INDOOR TEAM?
Cook: “Gosh, there’s a lot of objectives. The biggest goal is to provide more avenues for female athletes to compete and to go to school. I think that’s the ultimate goal in the sport. Anytime you are increasing the opportunities you are thinking big picture and you are getting something big done. So that is the big picture with what the AVCA, the American Volleyball Coaches Association, has going on with sand volleyball. Getting this to be an official sport.
“We just hit that number of 40 teams. Once the NCAA had 40 teams sponsor the sport (combined across all divisions) for a period of time it goes from being an emerging sport to being an official sport. And now (as an official NCAA-sanctioned sport) we are talking scholarships, we are talking roster spots, we are talking about significant growth in the sport of volleyball.”
BUT YOU ARE NOT THERE YET, CORRECT? SAND VOLLEYBALL STILL HAS TO APPLY FOR THAT STATUS WITH THE NCAA?
Cook: “They have to get to 40 members and they have to hold that for a length of time. I’m pretty sure this feels like the tipping point. We have to hold at 40 for this (spring) season. Then it could turn into 80. It could turn into 300 within three to five years. So that’s the big picture of it.
“What it means to Washington volleyball at this point is, we believe sand volleyball is good for any volleyball player. Jim talks about, ‘You haven’t lived a full volleyball life if you haven’t played anywhere on the sand.’ That’s one of his favorite lines. And he’s right. Anybody who’s played indoor for a while should play on the sand, and it’s a great complement. We have that opportunity for our student-athletes, so we are going to give it to them. If anything out there is good for our players we are going to give them the opportunity.”
DID THE HUSKIES FIND THEY NEEDED TO OFFER SAND VOLLEYBALL SO AS TO NOT FALL BEHIND IN RECRUITING WITH THE OTHER PAC-12 INDOOR PROGRAMS THAT ALREADY HAD SAND TEAMS?
Cook: “Certainly there is a group of players who now consider it among their factors on whether they want to attend an institution, more so than in the past. It’s being mentioned now. Whereas in the past if someone was an avid sand player she might not mention it at all. Now it’s being mentioned as, ‘Hey, I play sand. And I am quite good. I want to compete in that sport, as well.’ Or, ‘Hey, I play sand, and that is my primary mission. But I can help in you indoor, as well.’
“So it’s just become more of a factor in the recruiting game, for sure.”
HOW LONG DO YOU SEE THE UW PROGRAM SHIFTING FROM IT BEING PREDOMINENTLY INDOOR PLAYERS PLAYING SAND TO HAVING SPECIFICALLY SAND VOLLEYBALL PLAYERS PLAYING FOR THE HUSKIES?
Cook: “That’s a good question. You as a program have to make a decision whether you separate the two entities. And because it is so new, you are seeing schools go both ways with it. Some schools are fielding sand teams exclusively with indoor players. Some are separating them immediately – there is a sand program and an indoor program, and the players don’t cross over. Most programs are somewhere in the middle of that. They are using indoor players and then will start supplementing sand-only players as they receive scholarships.
“Personally, I don’t feel like there should ever be a time when we deny our indoor players the ability to play sand. I think sand is good for them, and I think they can help us achieve the goals in both programs. The kind of athletes that Jim has recruited for indoor can win sand volleyball national championships. They are that talented of athletes. They can help us reach our goals in both realms.”
ON THE COURT WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT SAND VOLLEYBALL FROM INDOOR? I’M TOLD SAND VOLLEYBALLERS NEED TO LEARN TO PASS MORE FROM OUTSIDE THE BODY FRAME THAN IN INDOOR GAMES, FOR INSTANCE.
Cook: “It’s interesting. In sand it’s just two people, and your relationship with this other person is big. How you talk to them. How you manage conflict. Whether you two are on the same page becomes critical in sand volleyball. You don’t have six people out there, and you don’t have a coach who is active in the game. Coaches are only allowed to coach during timeouts and during changeovers. So there is a lot more responsibility among the two players, from point to point, to have a plan. They take a little more ownership, is how I experienced it last year at Saint Mary’s. It’s more about the preparation, and how well you prepare these two people to play together. That’s a big difference from indoor.
“The skills are the skills, passing and hitting. There are just small variations from how you score points.”
SEVEN HUSKIES ON THE NEW TEAM, SEVEN RETURNING INDOOR PLAYERS ARE FROM CALIFORNIA (Vansant, Kim Condie, Carly DeHoog, Cassie Strickland, Lianna Sybeldon, Bailey Tanner and Melanie Wade). FOR HOW MANY OF THE HUSKIES WAS LAST WEEK’S FIRST PRACTICE THEIR FIRST TIME EVER PLAYING ON SAND?
Cook: “There was at least one who never played; she fessed up before (practice). And I think there are others who have played down how much they have played on sand. At least half of them were a little nervous. But once we got out there they were very good. I told Jim I thought they were sand-bagging their abilities a little bit. We have 11 members of the team; I would say six or eight of them have played quite a bit.
“Now, how many have actually competed in tournaments? That can be four, or fewer. Really good junior sand volleyball just didn’t exist back when they played, or it wasn’t as popular as it’s becoming now.”
IS THE FACT AN INDOOR PLAYER CAN’T MOVE AS QUICKLY ON SAND AS ON A HARD COURT A FRUSTRATION FOR INDOOR PLAYERS?
Cook: “Yes, that is the primary difference, how well you get up out of the sand. How well you move around the court. Moving efficiently is a big emphasis, because it is just so much more difficult.
“Sometimes in indoor volleyball a lot of bad first and bad second contacts aren’t that big of a deal because you can recover and make a great play (on the third and final contact of the ball over the net). But on the sand if you make poor first and second contacts you are going to have a hard time getting to the end game of hitting, because of how much work it takes to make those plays. I think that’s one of the things they are going to learn, the value of the contact. A lot of things tend to get overlooked in indoor because they can make some big, athletic move and make up for the mistakes at the very end of the point, whereas in sand you’ve got to do the right things early on (in the point) if you want to have success at the end of a play.”
HAVE YOU THOUGHT YET OF HOW THE PLAYERS WILL BE PAIRED? WHICH WILL BE THE TOP TEAMS? WILL YOU PAIR OUTSIDE HITTERS WITH BLOCKERS?
Cook: “Yeah. I don’t want to do it subjectively and say, ‘Oh, you are a tall person and you are a shorter person, and off you go.’ My experience is, teach them all how to play, get them to learn how to play with and against each other, and then out of that competition see who’s winning and reward them for that and set up a ladder, so to speak.
“Then the top teams will play, and you will have an opportunity to move up and down that ladder each week as you compete. And in the end they will make those decisions on who their partners are based on how well they are playing.”
SOME WILL SEE THE SCHEDULE AND ASK, “WHERE’S THE REST OF IT?”
Cook: “Yeah (chuckles).”
WHAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY OF STARTING THE PROGRAM THE WAY THE HUSKIES ARE, WITH JUST ONE DAY AND TWO MATCHES IN THE FIRST SEASON?
Cook: “There are more questions than answers in terms of how to make sand volleyball successful at UW in terms of practice, competition, facilities, who we’re going to play, so we wanted to address some of those questions before playing a full schedule.
“When I was at St. Mary’s, we had the advantage of being able to drive an hour to play eight teams to fill our schedule. That’s not feasible with sand volleyball at Washington. We have to travel farther, which means missed class time and stress on your athletes, and that becomes an issue because we’re using the same athletes (as indoors). So this shorter season gives us an opportunity to answer a lot of the practical questions in preparation for the 2015 season, which will be our first full eight-competition schedule, and away we go.”
IS IT A GO THAT THE HUSKIES WILL FIELD SAND VOLLEYBALL IN THE SPRING OF 2015 AND BEYOND?
Cook: “Oh, definitely 2015 is a go. The plan right now is we have our first season where we figure out all that we want in place before we go out and compete against all these schools. In 2015 it will be a full eight-date schedule. At some point I’m sure there is going to be a Pac-12 season and a Pac-12 championship. And then the winner of the Pac-12 going on to a national-championship tournament.
“I’m sure those developments are going to happen pretty organically.”
OK, SO WHAT WILL THE TEAM WEAR AS UNIFORMS?
Cook: “It’s spandex and tank tops with a ‘W’ on the front instead of jerseys. But it’s very similar to indoor in style. That’s the official uniform you will see.
“On really cold days they might have sand socks to save their feet.”
I KNOW YOU'VE GOT TO RUN TO PRACTICE NOW SO THANKS FOR TAKING THE TIME.
Cook: "Thank you!"