RIO DEL MAR >> With the nearest courts less than a five-minute drive from its Aptos campus, sand volleyball seems like a natural fit for Cabrillo College. As athletic director Dale Murray put it, "a no-brainer."
"We have the sand right here," he said.
So when the California Community Colleges Athletic Association approved it as a sport last spring, the Seahawks were one of the first teams to sign up. Now, thanks in part to their close proximity to the beach, they look like they may even have a chance to make the first CCCAA state championship.
"Our goal is to make playoffs and go back to Irvine Valley," said coach Lucas Bol, an assistant with the women's indoor team that won the state title in 2013 and was runner-up last year.
Cabrillo is one of 14 community college teams statewide to participate in the first season of CCCAA sand volleyball. Those teams are divided into four divisions, and the winner of each division's postseason tournament will advance to the team and doubles final four, scheduled for May 1-2 at Irvine Valley College."Our goal is to make playoffs and go back to Irvine Valley," said coach Lucas Bol, an assistant with the women's indoor team that won the state title in 2013 and was runner-up last year.
Cabrillo will play its first two North Conference matches against Feather River and Gavilan on Friday at noon at the Seahawks' home courts on Rio Del Mar State Beach.
In addition to being the host of the state championships, Irvine Valley is the team to beat. The Lasers upset Cabrillo for the indoor title in Aptos last December and bring much of that same talent to the sand. They also have a head start on most of the CCCAA programs. The school has had a club team for the past five years — setting the foundation for the approval of sand volleyball as a sanctioned CCCAA sport — and has won the past three state club championships.
"We have an advantage because we are ahead of the curve, but already people are catching up," said Lasers coach Tom Pestolesi, who has worked with the likes of Misty May and who coached more than one team to a national championship on the four-player pro beach tour in the late 1990s. "Cabrillo is good. They're good. ... Those kids grew up playing on the beach, so it makes sense."
Not all of them did. Bol said his players, who are divided into a ladder of five, two-woman teams, come from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels.
"It's a nice mix of returning sophomores from our indoor team, some past four-year players who came back to play, new faces at Cabrillo and new (sand) players," he said. "They're different ages, different skill levels, different paths and backgrounds. To see them playing together — they unite with beach volleyball."
Among the standouts is Kelsey Shaver, who won Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League MVP honors while at Harbor High and later CCCAA MVP honors as a freshman on Cabrillo's state championship team. On the beach, she is among the top 30 AA players in the California Beach Volleyball Association rankings.
Shaver is paired on the No. 1 team with another local standout, Alexa Rosendale. Rosendale helped lead the Mount Madonna girls team to a state title in 2007 before going on to play five years for Portland State, an NCAA Division I program. She also achieved a AA CBVA ranking, albeit when she was in high school.
"It's pretty cool, playing the first year. I never would have expected it. It's pretty special," said Rosendale, who is awaiting acceptance to graduate school in marine biology. "Getting to play again is exciting. I was pretty tired of volleyball after my fifth year. Then, after sitting out a year, I was like, dang, I miss it."
One of the program's more unusual players, Kim Fleming, also missed playing in college, enough so that the 44-year-old approached Pestolesi about playing on Irvine Valley's fledgling sand team a few years back. She moved to Santa Cruz before she got the chance.
Now she is playing on the Seahawks' No. 3 team with Madison Borch, a sophomore middle for the Cabrillo indoor team. Karly DaRosa, Morgan Matias and Danielle Good also came from the indoor team.
"When we moved, I felt like that was an ambition I hadn't fulfilled," said Fleming, also a CBVA AA-rated player, who teaches physical education at Brook Knoll elementary in Scotts Valley. "I had played in college, indoors, and would have played in a heartbeat if they'd had it."
Other players feel the same. Murray said he regularly fields calls from players inquiring as to whether Cabrillo has a sand team. Now he can tell them yes, though he and Pestolesi both said they soon won't be in the minority of schools with that answer.
Since its approval by the NCAA five years ago, beach volleyball has become the fastest growing collegiate women's sport. In addition to being popular, it gives colleges an additional, relatively inexpensive, mode of compliance with Title IX.
Keith Shackleford, the CCCAA sand volleyball representative and Irvine Valley's A.D., said that while just 14 of the organization's 113 schools will field teams this season, another 27 have requested a one-year waiver that allows them to field a club team or class to demonstrate to administrators that the sport has traction.
"Now, everybody is all excited," Pestolesi said. "There are only 14 teams playing intercollegiate, but there are at least another 20 at the club level that will be intercollegiate next year. It's one of the biggest growths ever.
"This thing is going to blow up."
Getting in on the ground floor and possibly getting their names on the first line in the state history books — for Bol and the Seahawks, that's a no-brainer.
photo by Kevin Johnson - Santa Cruz Sentinel