April 28, 2012

The Pepperdine women now have a national championship of their own.

The school won the national championship in the inaugural season of collegiate sand volleyball on Saturday - the 20th individual or team title for Pepperdine, but the first won by the women.

The Waves (17-0) beat Long Beach State 5-0 in the finals in Gulf Shores, Ala., where the American Volleyball Coaches Association hosted the tournament while sand volleyball - it's what everyone else calls beach volleyball - tries to grow into an official NCAA championship sport. Florida State finished third, and the College of Charleston fourth.

"The team format is really incredibly exciting," AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer said, noting that the bleachers at center court were packed with about 1,000 spectators. "I'm so excited about this as a collegiate sport."

Collegiate sand volleyball - they called it that to avoid scaring away the landlocked schools - is a team sport in which each school has five, two-women teams seeded 1-5 and matched up with the corresponding pair from the opponent: one against one, two against two, and so on. The school that takes three of the five matches is the winner.

There is also a pairs championship, with 16 of the top groups scheduled to play a single-elimination tournament on Sunday. The top players in the country, who could be competing in both the pairs and team events, could play as many as 11 matches over the weekend.

"There's about 16 kids who are doing some serious competing," DeBoer said. "It's in the low 80s, with deep sand. It is ideal conditions for spectators but pretty hot to play in. It's going to separate the players."

Beach volleyball rode an American sweep of the gold medals at the Beijing Olympics into a semi-official status as a collegiate sport the next year. It gained approval as an emerging sport for women, which allows schools to form teams and begin competing while the NCAA gauges whether there's enough interest for an official championship.

Fifteen schools competed in the inaugural season.

"The information we're getting from coaches is that we could see another 15 programs next year," DeBoer said. "Once you get to 40 for two years, the NCAA takes over the championship. We believe we will have enough teams for an NCAA championship in three or four years."

Five of the schools fielding teams this year were from the Atlantic Sun Conference, which held a conference championship that was won by North Florida. Two schools from BCS conferences have added the sport: Florida State and Southern Cal.

"We tend to focus on the majors and everything, but what's been most interesting to me has been the reaction of the athletic directors in the Atlantic Sun, a mid-major where a lot of the schools don't play football," DeBoer said. "They're so excited about this. It's a place they can make a difference."

Gulf Shores set up 26 courts for a bit of a beach volleyball festival. Five of the courts are dedicated to the collegiate championships, with the rest for a junior tournament drawing 120 teams and an adult event with 25 teams.

"The Hawaii people and the California people were like, `Are you kidding? We're going to Alabama to play beach volleyball? `DeBoer said. "But this is an absolute hidden gem.

"This community has absolutely opened its arms to this sport and said, `We want to be your Omaha. We want to be your Oklahoma City. We want to be a place you never want to leave,"' she said, referring to the homes of the NCAA baseball and softball championships. "These guys have set the bar pretty high."

You May Like