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Club beach volleyball: On the waterfront

Vikings join California’s first high school beach volleyball league

Posted: April 14, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 14, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Members of Valencia High’s beach volleyball team, from left, Lindsey Knudsen, Kellie Kleszcz, Sydney Striff, Teresa Cernosek, Hayley Knapp, Leah Konigsberg, Sarah Elias, Delaney Knudsen, Kaitlyn Uythoven and Sierra Sanchez. Not pictured: Savi Carroll and Melissa Kraidman.

A new volleyball movement is trending in Southern California, and the Santa Clarita Valley is very much involved.

For the first time in the state, beach volleyball can be called a high school sport.

The Amateur Athletic Union formed an eight-team league of high school girls teams that have traded knee pads and hardwood for sun tan lotion and sand this spring.

The idea was first proposed by the AAU in March, and Valencia High School was among the first to raise its hand.

“There’s rationale for it to grow as a sport,” says the team’s head coach, Mark Knudsen, “and presumably that’s what’s going to happen.”

Knudsen, who has two daughters on the team, was proactive in helping to create a beach volleyball team for a school nearly 40 miles from the ocean.

It’s further from the coast than any other school in the league, known as the Southern Pacific Girls Interscholastic Beach Volleyball League.

“I think it would be really fun (if this idea takes off), especially because we’re not really a beach town,” says Delaney Knudsen, the eldest of the two sisters on the team. “It could be cool if we could have a good showing.”

League play began in March and will run through the end of April, when six of the teams will be placed into a playoff bracket.

It’s the first of its kind in California.

“These eight schools are sort of pioneers in this whole thing,” says Gino Grajeda, commissioner of AAU beach volleyball. “They decided to take a leap and see what happened.”

In February, Arizona became the first state to officially sanction beach volleyball as a sport.

The hope is that the CIF will soon follow suit.

Though the beach game has been around since the early 20th Century, it’s been given a heavy mainstream push since its debut at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Heavy media coverage quickly turned a niche sport into something bigger.

“It was probably another milestone to get people interested who maybe didn’t know about it before,” Grajeda says.

This year, for the first time, a select group of universities added women’s sand volleyball as an NCAA sport.

That means schools like USC, Long Beach State University, Pepperdine University and Loyola Marymount University are offering the first-ever sand volleyball scholarships, along with a handful of schools in Florida.

“A lot of the schools, they want athletes that can do both,” says Valencia assistant coach Ray Sanchez. “Maybe they want to recruit an indoor player, but they want her to also be able to play for the sand volleyball team.”

It’s yet another incentive for the 12 players on Valencia’s inaugural roster.

Delaney and her younger sister Lindsey are joined by Sierra Sanchez, Kaitlyn Uythoven, Sydney Striff, Leah Konigsberg, Kellie Kleszcz, Hayley Knapp, Sarah Ellias, Savi Carroll, Melissa Kraidman and Teresa Cernosek on the team.

Ten of the girls played on the school’s varsity indoor volleyball team this season, which has made for an easy transition.

“It’s a great program,” says Ray Sanchez, who also coaches the school’s varsity indoor team. “The kids are having a great time. They’re super competitive. It really helps develop well-rounded players.”

The majority of the players already have experience playing the beach game, hence the eagerness to form an organized team.

“It’s cool because it’s a high school league, so when you win, you’re not just winning for yourself, you’re winning for your school,” Delaney says.

The Valencia junior has been involved in various beach volleyball tournaments for four years, but until now, the sport has basically been an individual enterprise.

Now she’s able to translate that success into team wins.

Valencia has started off 3-0 against league competition with wins over Marymount, Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough in the past three weeks.

All the matches were played at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, where most of the league’s competitions have been held.

Others will take place at Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica.

Valencia practices twice a week, usually at a local site.

In league play, matches are played in a best-of-three format. Each team competes with three separate pairings ranked from 1-3. The No. 1 teams face the opponent No. 1 and the pattern continues down the line.

The first team to win two sets takes the match.

Typically, after substitutions, about 10 players compete in a given match.

Among other members of the Southern Pacific League are Mira Costa, El Segundo, Palos Verdes and Carson high schools.

Given the interest he’s already received from schools, Grajeda says he expects the number of schools to at least double next season.

“We anticipate we will have a lot of growth, not just in L.A. County, but in Orange and others,” he says.

As far as the idea of beach volleyball becoming a CIF sport?

Grajeda says he’d welcome it, but wouldn’t speculate on its likelihood.

For now, Valencia will have to be the guinea pig.


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