Cal sand volleyball begins inaugural season with match against Pacific

This weekend, Cal will inaugurate its first new sport in nearly 15 years.

Cal announced that it added sand volleyball as the school’s 30th athletic program in January. On Sunday, the Bears travel to Stockton, Calif., to take on Pacific at 10 a.m. in the Bears’ first official time competing in the young sport.

The sand volleyball squad features players from the Cal indoor volleyball team competing in five teams of two players each. Each pair plays on its own court against another pair, and the school that wins on the most courts will win the overall match. Matches have three sets, with each of the first two sets played to 21 and the final set, when it is needed, played to 15.

“It really is a different game,” said head coach Rich Feller. “There is no hiding on the court in sand volleyball, because it’s just you and your partner.”

The top court is headlined by seniors Joan Caloiaro and Adrienne Gehan, who have been practicing exclusively on sand courts during the spring semester while the rest of the team has spent time working on its indoors play.

After sand practice began this week, the coaching staff put together the rest of the pairings. Sophomores Sarah Cole and Lara Vukasovic — a starter on last year’s indoor squad — will play on the second court. Maddy Kerr and Nikki Gombar are the third pairing, with  Katarina Milosavljevic and Sabrina Blackwell playing on court No. 4. The final court will feature Emily Lunt and Caroline Olson — two freshmen walk-ons who were not on Cal’s indoor squad last year.

Though the game is similar to indoor volleyball, it stresses a different set of skills for the players. While the indoor game is very specialized, sand volleyball requires each player pass, set, hit and serve effectively.

Players who have a good all-around game but aren’t at an elite level in any one area can benefit greatly from the sand game. Sarah Cole hopes to be one of those players.

“That whole specialized aspect of indoor is not conducive to the kind of player that I am,” Cole said. “I am the kind of player that can do every skill well, but I’m not extremely powerful. So I think sand is where I’m comfortable.”

Cole played mostly in the back row and had few chances to get kills or impact the offensive end as a defensive specialist on Cal’s indoor squad last year. But on the sand, she is hoping to put her full skill set to the test.

With just two players on the court at once, the room for strategy grows in sand volleyball. Not only do players have to take advantage of their full skill sets, but they also have to cover a larger area all while on a surface that slows down their ability to traverse from one end of the court to the other. Setting up on defense and positioning shots on offense matter more than ever.

“It’s much more a game of smarts,” Cole said. “Outdoors, if you read (a player’s shot) wrong, you’re probably not going to get it.”

As a result of the slower play, there are a number of rule changes. In sand volleyball, players cannot use an open hand to make contact, and they can’t set most balls without their hands touching.

Cal played some sand volleyball last year, but those matches are not considered official. For the players on the team, this is a brand new sport that gives many of the players a chance to compete year-round.

“We’re all really excited just because it’s new,” Cole said. “It’s a change. It’s kind of exciting that you’re part of an up-and-coming sport. There’s not a lot of expectation placed on you, so you can kind of only go up.”

Riley McAtee covers sand volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee