Chapel Hill: Sports

Sand volleyball enjoying a rising tide

Chapel Hill High’s Marin Wolf (white shirt) and teammate Olivia Wander (green shirt) play a sand volleyball match last Wednesday at Umstead Park.
Chapel Hill High’s Marin Wolf (white shirt) and teammate Olivia Wander (green shirt) play a sand volleyball match last Wednesday at Umstead Park. Photo by Randy Young

Go and try this sometimne. Visit any North Carolina bBeach, set up the blanket and a beach chair, then break out a bag of French fries. You’ll be very popular.

Skeptical? Count to 10, and then count the seagulls.

Chances are, within a minute or two, you’ll be able to toss 20 fries in the air, and not one will hit the sand.

Now visit the sand volleyball courts at Chapel Hill’s Umstead Park and count the sport’s devotees on hand.

Chances are, you’ll be able to toss a dozen volleyballs in the air, and not one will hit the sand. With players ranging from young converts from the conventional indoor game and high school club competitors to adult league and tournament enthusiasts, sand volleyball’s popularity is on the rise.

Blue Sky Volleyball’s Steve Scanga, who coordinates instruction, high school competition, and adult pick-up play at the Chapel Hill courts and tournaments throughout the Triangle, said he’s pushing for recognition as a varsity sport by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA), which currently recognizes sand volleyball as separate from the indoor game, but only as a club activity.

“Next year, the NCAA is having a national championship, and it’s already been a college scholarship sport for about two years now,” he said. “We’re looking to continue that (growth) with high school players.”

As such, Scanga coordinates play within the Chapel Hill competitive region, which includes club teams, all of which play on the Umstead Park sand volleyball courts.

“Chapel Hill, East Chapel Hill, Carrboro, two teams from Northwood, Jordan, and Southern Alamance, and Roxboro Community School all play here at Umstead,” Scanga explained. “It’s like tennis: each team consists of three (two-person) squads – with an ‘A,’ a ‘B’ and a ‘C’ squad. We’re really only limited by the number of courts out there. Not every school has courts; we’re lucky we do.”

It wasn’t merely luck, however, as Scanga himself helped to make the Umstead courts happen.

“Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation set up this 503(c) Friends of Chapel Hill fund so that people could make a donation with a specific category for beach volleyball,” he said, “so we got all of our friends that had anything to do with volleyball to donate. We raised around $20,000 to build these courts. We also got a few grants – from Strowd Roses, the Oaks Foundation, USA volleyball, and the Town of Chapel Hill contributed the actual poles for a couple thousand dollars. Parents donated the rest.”

Expect to see more and more courts at local parks and at local high schools, organizers say.

“We’ve put up temporary nets at our school,” said Mark Perry, who coaches two competitive teams from Northwood High in Pittsboro, “and we’ll be playing on our own courts for the first time.”

For all the fervor and determination demonstrated by organizers and coaches, however, the sport’s growth would not happen without the enthusiasm of players.

“We’ve been having (youth) tournaments for five or six years, and a lot of these kids have been playing in those tournaments since they were 12 or 13,” Scanga said. “These kids want to play the sand game. Some are only playing beach volleyball.”

“The Triangle area actually produced national champions last year,” he added. “Geena Simpkins and Kylie Grandy went to California and won the national (juniors) tournament.”

“I’ve been doing sand volleyball for a lot of years,” Carrboro High’s Brigid O’Kane said. “We’ve been having a lot of fun out here, and it’s sort of a relaxed environment.”

O’Kane was partnered with Carrboro’s Amanda Padden for matches played this past Wednesday at Umstead.

“We won both of our games today,” she said. “We’ve been doing pretty well.”

“It’s a pretty even mix of players,” noted Amanda Padden, O’Kane’s playing partner. “All of the schools have new players and players who’ve been playing for a long time.”

“We did okay: we went one-and-two,” said Chapel Hill High’s Marin Wolf, who played with teammate Olivia Wander. “It was our first time playing together. I’ve switched off with Amelia Charles twice, but this is my first time with Olivia.”

Last week, Charles was paired for co-ed competition with Chapel Hill’s Kyle McCormick.

“I found out about this though Amelia, and she’s my playing partner,” McCormick said. “Today, we lost the first set, and then we won the second. In a second match, we won both games. We’ve only been playing for about two weeks though.”

Charles said co-ed play demanded slightly different skill set than girls’ competition.

“It’s different styles,” Charles said. “You have to set the ball differently. When we’re playing non co-ed teams, I can’t be close to the net. I stand farther off, and that was a little challenging at first.”

Scanga said high school play began about four years ago in Raleigh when Mark Nalevanko introduced it in Wake County’s schools.

“Mark and I both organize junior sand volleyball tournaments, so we both became a part of it,” Scanga said. Right now I’m the regional coordinator for the Chapel Hill area. We’ve divided the state up into regions with Chapel Hill being one. Wake County has two regions, and Charlotte, the Triad, and New Bern have regions.”

Scanga’s Blue Sky Volleyball also offers sand volleyball instruction which is also available at the Umstead Courts.

“We offer volleyball training with some of our lessons out of here and some in Cary,” said Scanga, who added that local classes are currently filled. “We may run another if we get enough juniors girls who are interested in learning more about sand volleyball though. This instruction is for girls who already have basic volleyball skills but want to learn more about what’s different in beach volleyball.”

Scanga hopes that adult pick-up play on Wednesdays, beginning May 13, will generate enough interest to create some leagues.

“We want adults to start coming out on Wednesday nights ... here at these Umstead courts for pick-up play starting the second week in May ... after this high school program ends, and that would run all summer long. Once we get (an established group) of people who want to play regularly, we can start some leagues.”

Blue Sky Volleyball also offers adult tournament play for open-level athletes for Volley America members and friendly competition for those still working on their skills. Those wanting information can visit or email

Come mid-May, interested adults can pop by the Umstead courts. Volleyballs are welcome. French fries are optional.