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Looking ahead to sand volleyball’s third season at Stanford

Lauren Birks (above)

Stanford’s sand volleyball team enters its third season as a varsity sport. Hosting the NorCal Invitational – which includes Stanford, California, Pacific, Sacramento State, Saint Mary’s, San Jose State, Santa Clara and USF – this weekend, the Cardinal will open the competition in a contest against Sacramento State on Friday at 3 p.m. at the Stanford Sand Volleyball Stadium, the new volleyball facility.

Lauren Birks (above)
Lauren Birks (above), the only senior on the sand volleyball team, is one of five players on the roster who play solely sand volleyball. (BOB DREBIN/stanfordphoto.com)

The new stadium, which will open its gates to the public for the first time on Friday, contains four courts that are roughly 75 yards long. Bordering the grass berms are ten palm trees, all of which are over a hundred years old. In the archetypal California spirit, the stadium carries a “beach” feeling, and admission will be free.

“The new courts that Arrillaga so generously donated for us have really made a difference in our sand game this year. In the past, our team has not been so well-equipped to play some of the more developed sand teams such as Hawaii or USC,” sophomore Grace Kennedy said.

In 2013, sand volleyball was the 36th sport to be added the varsity lineup, one year after the NCAA established it as a varsity sport. The Cardinal fared well in their first season, winning seven of their eight matches. The team resembled much of the women’s indoor volleyball team, as there were 11 players from the previous season’s indoor team. Most of the players that season opted to play sand volleyball to get more practice time during their indoor offseason, which mirrors the mindset that many of the current players have.

Head coach John Dunning, who is also the head coach of the indoor volleyball team, will return to coach the team for its third season. Entering his 13th season as a Stanford head coach, Dunning is certainly no stranger to success. In addition to being a four-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Dunning is an American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Hall of Famer. Commanding the helm, the decorated head coach has helped to improve the athletics on the Farm and continues to strengthen the volleyball program.

This season, more than half of the 15-member sand volleyball team is comprised of underclassman. The only senior is outside hitter Lauren Birks, who joined the team as a junior in 2014 after playing for the indoor team as freshman in 2011. The team roster includes only five exclusively sand players: Birks, junior Dana Ritchie, freshman Petra Grutzik, freshman Catherine Raquel, and freshman Karina Robinson. Like Birks, defensive specialist Ritchie is returning for her second season with the team.

“I play sand because I love the strategy behind the sport. The game is about reading your opponent and using finesse to place the ball in open court,” Ritchie said. “That’s not to say I don’t get pumped when we pound a ball though — it’s an unbelievable rush to earn a point at the end of a long play. What’s great about sand is that you have to work your butt off for every point.”

This season, Stanford will mostly be playing locally-based teams predominantly at home, which includes four dual matches against San Jose State, Pacific, St. Mary’s, and Santa Clara. However, on April 3 and 4, the Cardinal will travel to Miami to compete in the Surf ‘n Turf Invitational against Carson Newman, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, and Webber International. The subsequent weekend, April 10 to April 12, Stanford will host the Stanford Invitational — which will feature the Card, Cal Poly, Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara, UCLA, and Washington — at the new facility. The last match of the 2015 will be against rival Cal at Berkeley on April 26 at 3:30 p.m.

“I am excited for the tournament this weekend because we get to compete after practicing all winter,” said freshman Sidney Brown. “The team has improved substantially, and what has made sand rewarding so far is this steep learning curve. You can see yourself improving every day.

“The sand game forces you to get to know your teammates better as people and athletes. Because there are only two players on the court, you have to work to use their strengths and cover their weaknesses. You have to be crafty in finding a way to win. This aspect of sand training will help our indoor team play better together next fall.”

In the NorCal Invitational, USF will play Santa Clara on courts three and four, California will play Pacific at the Arrillaga Center for Recreation (ACSR), and San Jose State will play St. Mary’s on the Wilbur sand courts. The standings of the matches on Friday will determine the match-ups on Saturday at 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.

Stanford’s volleyball program has produced several professional beach volleyball players, including three Olympians who have proudly represented the Cardinal on Team USA: three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh ’87, Barbra Fontana ’88 and M.S. ’90, and Nancy Reno ’00.

Contact Elizabeth Trinh at entrinh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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