Most athletes wouldn’t be content with a 5-6 record, but for the Cal sand volleyball team, this season was never about numbers. In Cal’s inaugural season, the goal always was to build a strong foundation for a competitive future.
The Bears began the season with a conglomeration of indoor players who had practiced on the sand for just one week before the first match began. The shortened practice time showed: Cal lost five of its first seven matches. But as the season progressed, the team adjusted to outdoor play and won three of its last four.
“All in all, a good start,” said head coach Rich Feller. “We saw some real growth with a couple of our teams and some real improvement. And I think I have a much better understanding of how the season needs to work.”
With a full season of experience under their collective belt, it is unlikely the Bears will ever have a season as experimental as this last one. Slowly, over the next few years, indoor players will be phased out from the Cal team until the sand and indoor teams are completely separate.
Cal has a possible seven new players coming in next year to play on the sand exclusively. Some of these players were recruited to Cal by Feller out of high school, while others were just coming to Cal as students before Feller saw potential in them. These sand-only players will practice exclusively outdoors starting in September, giving them a huge boost, compared to the abbreviated practice season Cal had this year.
While players from the indoor team will still cross over to sand, there may be fewer next year as the team moves toward exclusivity. This leaves the fates of Sarah Cole, Lara Vukasovic, Nikki Gombar and Maddy Kerr, among others, unknown, for the time being. Some may continue to play both, while others may not return to the sand.
“I could possibly see one or two of them deciding one way or the other,” Feller said. “I just don’t know which way it will go right now.”
The long-term goal is to bring sand volleyball up to the level of Cal’s other varsity sports. This means improved facilities, a longer season and, above all, scholarships for players.
“That is the future of sand volleyball in this country,” Feller said. “It’s going to be as separate as any other sport. It will only happen when we have full scholarships, a full staff and a facility that we can really train in that is NCAA and Pac-12 quality.”
There is no timeline for these kind of improvements. Right now the sport is so new, there isn’t even a real NCAA championship. Feller expects to have one in 2016 after there have been at least 40 sand teams across the country for two full seasons. For the time being, Cal will continue to experiment with its newest sport.
“We’re going to try and be as good as we can get,” Feller said.