Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
The beach volleyball team hosted its first tournament at Berry’s newest sports facility last weekend, defeating three of four opponents. In the program’s second year, team members hope to see continued improvement in knowledge of the game that reflects on their record.
The Vikings’ 3-1 tournament record, including a win over National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I opponent Tennessee Tech University, advanced them to an overall 6-1 record on the season, already matching their total wins for 2022, the program’s first season.
Rachel Ford, assistant coach for the indoor and beach volleyball teams, said a major indicator of the team’s growth in the new sport during the past year was their team’s 5-0 shutout of the University of Loyola New Orleans, the first sweep in program history. In their opening weekend of 2022, the team lost to Loyola 0-5.
“It was a season of learning, and just figuring out the very baseline of what beach volleyball was going to be like at Berry,” Ford said, referring to last year.
Beach volleyball is one of the newest collegiate sports and is expected to expand rapidly in coming years, according to Berry College Athletic Director Angel Mason. There are currently around 100 college programs for the sport across all colleges nationwide.
Berry and conference opponent Hendrix College are the only schools with a beach program in the Southern Athletic Association (SAA).
“We like being on the forefront of what we think is to come, and we think beach [volleyball] is one that will continue to grow,” Mason said.
The Vikings went 3-2 against D-III teams in 2022, finishing fourth in the division. In 2023, they hope to claim the title of second-ever D-III champion, as awarded by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). The AVCA organizes the championship tournaments for all small colleges, meaning all schools not in the NCAA’s Division I.
The most anticipated games this season include duals, or games, against any of the nation’s nine D-III teams, said Caitlyn Moriarty, head coach of the indoor and beach volleyball teams. The Vikings will play the division’s reigning champs, Stephenson University, three times before the AVCA championship.
More important to the coaches than winning a championship is the hope to see their team grow in knowledge of the sport and in relationships with team members.
Moriarty said she scheduled more challenging games for the team’s 2023 season, against many D-I schools and other stronger, more established teams, to continue to encourage her players’ growth, much like she does with her indoor schedules.
“We still have a long way to go,” Moriarty said. “On the beach side of things, we’re still the new kids on the block, but everybody is, and that’s exciting.”
According to Ford, all but two players, including freshman Kenzie Thomas, who transferred to Berry this spring, are members of the indoor volleyball team who had no prior experience competing on sand courts. These players learned to play beach volleyball last year to help Berry start the program.
Playing in pairs, rather than altogether like an indoor game, is the biggest adjustment for team culture. Coaches anticipate that the extra time team members will spend one-on-one, as well as on the sidelines, will benefit both teams.
“Just having that beach season where they had to be so involved with each other and figure each other out, it translates really well,” Ford said.
Ford said a unified team culture left by the upperclassmen will be most important to the success of the incoming nine to 11 team members in the fall, including the first recruiting class of beach-only athletes.
Olivia Mallow, a junior cited by Ford as a morale leader, said that current team members are preparing to persevere through a challenging schedule that will push them beyond their comfort zone.
“There’s a confidence level to us that I didn’t see as much of last year,” Mallow said. “I think we’re really trying to touch into that and roll into this season.”
Having a facility that meets NCAA regulations allows the team to host and closely mimics an actual beach venue, head coach Moriarty said, with deep and non-packing sand, water drainage to allow quick and safe playing and even a location with few windbreakers, creating a windy environment.
Construction on the beach volleyball facility finished two weeks before the opening tournament last weekend. The Vikings will host six D-III teams at home on March 24-25, with the facility’s grand opening on March 24.