Beach volleyball took on a starring role in Cayman over the weekend with the NORCECA tournament at Seven Mile Beach, spotlighting a sport that has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence in the United States over the past decade.

In its ninth straight year of hosting the tournament, the Cayman Islands is represented in the men’s and women’s brackets. The pool of competitors includes teams from the United States, Puerto Rico and Cuba, among others, and the tournament finals were scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

It’s the second stop on the NORCECA circuit this season. Cuba won the men’s and women’s brackets at the first tournament on the schedule, in La Paz, Mexico, earlier this month.

Beach game comes into its own

Just eight years ago, the beach game was an offshoot of indoor volleyball, which had been an NCAA championship sport for women since 1981. But a furious press for recognition led beach volleyball to be named an “emerging sport” in 2008 and a full-fledged NCAA championship sport in 2016.

Beach volleyball was just the fifth women’s sport to go from emerging – which indicates that at least 40 member institutions have begun playing it – to a championship. But more than that it was the speed with which it became so widespread that marked it as a special phenomenon.

“I’ve worked at the NCAA almost 19 years, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to be on that side of a sport that’s emerging and becoming a championship,” said Kristin Fasbender, the NCAA’s director of championships and alliances. “There was a lot of passion behind those that fought for student-athletes that wanted to play beach volleyball and continuing to grow that sport.

“I think it was exciting to see and people were very excited about the opportunity being given to them.”

Cayman’s David Wood and Casey Santamaria played against Guatemala on Saturday.

That very sentiment is evident in markets as diverse as California and Grand Cayman. Jeff Smith, who helms the 692 Beach Volleyball Club in San Diego, said he saw incredible growth at home and hopes to see the same thing happen on Cayman.

Mr. Smith coaches Marissa Harrison, a 15-year-old member of the Cayman national team, in California, and he hosted an instructional clinic at Public Beach last week ahead of the NORCECA tournament. With just a little time and effort, he said, the Cayman Islands could be the next place to catch volleyball fever.

“Nine years ago, we were on the ground floor in California and in the States,” said Mr. Smith. “We didn’t have beach clubs in California then, and now we have 200-plus beach clubs in California. The programming is there, but it took nine years. I can see the same thing happening here, where once we start the programming, it will just build and these kids will eventually be on the national team.”

Marissa Harrison in action on Saturday. – Photos: taneos Ramsay

Cayman teen makes her move

Marissa, who has verbally committed to play at Florida State University, is an example of the diligence and discipline it takes to thrive on the beach. When she moved to California, she said recently, she was more of a football fan and hoped to play that game for the rest of her competitive life.

But then she picked up volleyball at the urging of a friend and soon discovered that she loved it. Marissa discovered the game at age 11 and is now a budding star at age 15.

“I think the last two years I’ve probably grown the fastest,” she said of her athletic journey. “When I started to realize that there were college scholarships available, it motivated me more to work hard and push myself and play in more tournaments. I’d say my biggest growth has happened recently.”

That growth has happened naturally and organically, but it has not been easy. Marissa has a six-hour school day five days a week, going straight from school to volleyball practice for more than two hours.

Despite that grueling schedule – which Marissa says is “really just about time management,” she’s thriving in the classroom as well as on the beach. And that’s no coincidence, according to Mr. Smith, because it takes an exacting eye for detail and an all-consuming passion to improve at this game.

“That’s the key to why kids get to the next level. If you don’t have passion, you’ll never get there,” he said. “When you’re tired and it’s 8 o’clock after practice and you have three hours of homework, you have to do your work because you can’t have low grades and go to college. That passion is what drives Marissa. It’s the passion that keeps her competitive and playing on the weekends and in tournaments. She’s eating correctly, fueling her body with the right nutrition. There’s times where it’s a balance and you have external factors that can distract you. But you have to reset and get re-focused every day.”

Top NCAA schools

Sixty colleges and universities are recognized in the top three divisions of NCAA beach volleyball, and all of them are eligible for the year-end championship, which will take place in early May. Eight teams qualify for the tournament at this point, and Ms. Fasbender said there is no urgent need to grow the field.

In some ways, the beach game coincides with the indoor game. More than 300 universities compete in indoor volleyball, and 64 teams qualify for the year-end tournament. In the beginning, many athletes played both disciplines, but that is starting to change.

“What you saw early and what you see with programs coming on to the beach is that a lot of times there are some crossover student-athletes that are participating in both,” said Ms. Fasbender. “But the other thing that you see is within the first couple of years, most of those players become solely beach volleyball players …. I don’t think you’re necessarily hurting either sport. I think you’re just continuing to give lots of people an opportunity to play in whichever discipline they feel is best for them.”

The beach game probably makes the most sense for residents of Cayman due to the presence of abundant natural resources and the smaller number of competitors per side. Kennedy McGowan, president of the Cayman Islands Volleyball Federation, said he hopes to see the sport take off on island and that the word is starting to trickle around that the game can be a means to an education.

“Our very own Marissa Harrison is a testament to that” he said. “She’s been playing volleyball in California for the last four years, and now she’s verbally committed to play at Florida State University. She’s a testament that it can be done. We plan to encourage more of our kids to follow in her footsteps and succeed athletically and academically, and they can use beach volleyball as a table to get there.”

Beach volleyball, the 90th championship sport adopted by the NCAA and the first for women since bowling was added in 2004, still has plenty of room to grow. The craze was probably kicked off by its inclusion as a medal sport in the Summer Olympics in 1996, and there’s no telling where it will stop, observers say.

“I don’t think it’s reached its destination at all, and I don’t even know where to begin on where I think it could be in two to four years,” said Ms. Fasbender. “I think it really depends on institutions looking at what sports they offer for their student-athletes. If they’re able to offer beach volleyball and if it’s the right sport, it’s really an institutional decision, but I do think that over the next two to four years, we’ll see a continued increase in institutions that are offering beach volleyball.”

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