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The first ever NCAA beach volleyball National Championship was held in Gulf Shores, AL May 6-8. With temperatures in the low 80's, low humidity and sunny skies, the tournament unfolded as three spectacular days of competition on the beautiful, white-sand beaches of downtown Gulf Shores. A tactful layout fenced in the event, but allowed beachgoers to cross between tournament partitions and the Gulf of Mexico. While distant views were available from the waters edge, the best vantages were court-side. Beach chairs lined the two center courts and spectators also gathered on the elevated boardwalk to scan the matches. The Gulf Shores Hangout sat behind the center courts serving food and beverages and snack vendors dotted the boardwalk.
The games were played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Saturday's games were televised live on TRU TV and Sunday's final was on TBS. According to numerous sources, beach volleyball is the fastest growing sport in NCAA history. In it's first year (2012) there were only 16 teams. Last year, 29 teams were playing beach volleyball and this Spring, in its third season, 41 universities have funded teams. And there seems to be no signs that this trend will fizzle any time soon. According to the AVCA, nearly 500,000 females ranging between 13 - 25 have taken up the sport since 2007. High schools and clubs have been feverishly adding beach volleyball with Arizona becoming the first high school back in 2012. Beach volleyball is a great sporting option for schools for a number of reasons. Low overhead, small team size and the cross over ability for indoor players all helps to keep scholarship costs down. Beach volleyball also promotes sports for female athletes and the AL / FL Gulf Coast is a great area and exposes girls and boys to the growing sport.
During competition, a light breeze stirred play in the later part of the afternoons most days and made for "good sides" and "bad sides". In the realm of beach volleyball, the side facing the wind is considered the "good side" because the ball is more active on serves and topspin causes the ball to drop much more abruptly. Typically in a coastal environment, the wind is something players on the beach face constantly and puts ball control at a premium. When playing on the "bad side", the opponents service game becomes much more difficult to control. When opponents serve what is akin to a knuckle ball, the ball dances around and subject to travel in any direction at any moment. A hard serve with spin will dart when served in to the wind. A lot of points are won from the "good side" due to the difficulty of passing the ball well. Passing is imperative in beach volleyball as it allows the setter the ability to control the set. Sets must be timed properly and placed in certain areas within the range of the hitter. Bad sets often become lost points. All-in-all, the nearby Gulf Shores condos and the Hangout blocked the majority of the wind........and they switch sides so it all worked out.
USC was the eventual winner and seemed to be a step ahead of the competition from the start. The top team from USC of Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes, both juniors, defeated Julie Brown and Jace Pardon of FSU. Claes and Hughes had won their previous 72 matches and went to 47-0 for the season. Claes was the more dominant of the two great Trojans and was very strong around the net leading USC to win the first ever NCAA Beach Volleyball National Championship. All-in-all, the NCAA's beach volleyball staff and the city of Gulf Shores hosted a fantastic event and the setup was a well-planned success. Gulf Shores has already contracted the event for May 5-7, 2017. Gulf Shores will be looking forward to another great event and with the success of the event this year, 2017 is sure to be even bigger and better.