Utah Beach Volleyball

Utah Beach Volleyball: The Potential Sleeping Giant in the Sand

Utah Beach Wave 1

One of the most easily forgotten matches in AVP Seattle was also, for one area in particular, one of the most significant. In the second round of the women’s qualifier, 39th-seeded Danielle Barton-Drews and Sammee Thomas were matched up with seventh-seeded Molly Turner and Brittany Tiegs.

It was Barton-Drews and Thomas who took the first set, and it was Barton-Drews and Thomas who beat Turner and Tiegs to the freeze, eventually losing, 22-20, in the second to push it to three. They dropped the third, too, 19-17, in one of the best matches of the qualifier, and Tiegs and Turner would go on to finish fifth overall.

But Barton-Drews and Thomas had made a statement: They were no pushover of a 39 seed.

Utah beach volleyball was no pushover of a state.

Thomas and Barton-Drews do not hail from Southern California, as most beach players do. Thomas was raised in Park City, Utah, competed for two years at Long Beach State and transferred to Stetson for her remaining two. Barton-Drews grew up in Sandy, Utah and competes for the University of Utah which is, as you may have guessed, not exactly a beach volleyball powerhouse.

And yet there they were all the same, a pair of Utah natives, challenging two main draw regulars in the second round of a qualifier. Clint Barnes wasn’t surprised. He’s seen, firsthand, the growth of beach volleyball in the state of Utah.

He’s one of the main individuals who helped usher it in.

Barnes founded Utah Beach Volleyball in 2008, though initially it began, as it does in most landlocked states, as a competitive type of training program for indoors.

“We’re such a big indoor state,” Barnes said. “We have a couple beautiful facilities in Salt Lake but there’s not a ton of sand courts, so it’s harder to find. A lot of these coaches are still like ‘Hey, look, we see the benefits of the touches to try to make their indoor game better.’ We’re not to the point, I think we’re years away from seeing the beach-only kid. We only have a handful of them, but there are not a ton of kids who are saying ‘Beach is our life, we’re not going to do the indoor thing.’ I think a lot of them are primarily the indoor player coming out and trying something new.”

The numbers are swelling, taking even Barnes a bit by surprise. There had been steady growth every year, and it increased in volume in 2012, but still, it didn’t prepare him for the leap Utah beach took this past year, where the number of teams in the high school league shot from 35 to 80, from 70 total players to 160.  

“We’ve got some good coaches, some good high school coaches in our area who have really seen the benefits of beach,” Barnes said. “They’ve been supportive of beach to try and get their kids to play in the sand because I think they get it. These coaches understand that these players are going to be more well-rounded. They have to pass, they have to hit, they have to strategize. I think these coaches out here are starting to see that there are huge benefits to playing in the sand.”

At the moment, in terms of level of play, Barton-Drews and Thomas are the exceptions. Barnes noted that the California and Arizona players are still ahead of the curve when it comes to competing at the highest level. But when the numbers are growing that fast, and every tournament Barnes puts on sells out, it’s simply a matter of time before Utah natives begin challenging the sport’s traditional powers more often.

“You look at Utah and you think of skiing and cold and over the years we’ve done a good job of educating our kids on the benefits of playing in the sand,” Barnes said. “I think the kids are seeing that it’s a funner game. They’re involved. We’re starting to see kids really enjoy the sand game, ‘Hey, I’m not sitting on a bench, I’m involved, and I have to pass, set, hit.’ I think the kids really enjoy being a part of something really exciting. We’re starting to see a lot more kids exploring the game, learning the game. I don’t think we’ll ever be a state where we see a ton of kids specializing in it but we’re seeing a lot of kids getting into it which is fun to watch.”