University of Tampa introduces new beach volleyball program

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Joni Mitchell's observation in "Big Yellow Taxi": "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

My observation for the new beach volleyball complex at the University of Tampa: "They sodded the parking lot and put up a paradise."

The Tampa beach volleyball complex is an oasis in the middle of campus. Just steps from North Boulevard, it literally used to be a parking lot for Pepin-Rood Stadium. The school added a grassy knoll to hide the court from the street -- then added a brand new program to play on one of the coolest venues in the area.

Beach volleyball puts the sun and sand center-stage and pits two players against the opposition. It is a fully sanctioned NCAA varsity sport and the University of Tampa is part of a trio of local schools adding programs this year. St. Leo's and Florida Southern join the Spartans in fielding teams in the fastest growing sport in college athletics.

The University of Tampa has won two national titles in indoor volleyball, so expanding to the outdoor game as well as a natural fit. Add in the natural setting the sunshine state has to offer and you have the hottest sport going.

Spartan freshman Merissa Elias and sophomore Katie McKiel play both indoor and beach volleyball at UT. They are one of the doubles teams the Spartans roll out for match play.

The challenge of this outdoor game -- in addition to the sun, sand and the wind -- is that the dimensions of the court are nearly identical to the indoor game. But instead of six players per side inside, there are only two players to cover the court.

"It's a lot of trust," said McKiel. "A lot of responsibility and preparation. You have to really communicate with your partner and make sure the whole court is taken care of." 

UT Head coach Jeff Lamm grew up playing beach volleyball in Sarasota, he helps ease the first-year team's transition. "The ground moves, first of all.  That's completely foreign to them, and then you add the wind and sun in here. The ball just reacts differently."       

And the wind switches every time the teams switch sides. Ironically, players don't want the wind at their backs; that's referred to as the bad side. The good side is hitting into the wind. 

Katie McKiel explained, "You want to be on the good side so you can get an aggressive swing into the wind. A hard swing would be 10 feet out of bounds with some wind [at your back]. That same ball [into the wind] is going to land right on the line." 

Sun, sand, and student-athletes -- the University of Tampa's beach volleyball program may just be the ideal Florida sport.

"Pretty much," added Elias. "You get tanned, you get to be outside. It's pretty nice."