Brett Adams has heard the doubts before.
After Stevenson announced in 2011 that it would sponsor a varsity women’s ice hockey program, Adams, the university’s athletic director, heard from critics who questioned the wisdom behind a school in Owings Mills making a foray into ice hockey.
After the Mustangs announced Wednesday that they would be the first NCAA institution in the country to launch a varsity men’s beach volleyball team this fall, Adams braced himself for a similar reception.
“I got the same rhetoric when we added women’s ice hockey back in 2012,” he said Friday morning. “Everyone told me that you can’t play hockey in Maryland or that there was no one to play. Long story short, we added women’s ice hockey, and four years later, we won the conference championship. Then we added men’s ice hockey, and we’ve made presentations to the conference, and now we have six schools in the conference that are sponsoring ice hockey. And there’s others to grow.”
Already the first in the nation to establish an NCAA Division III women’s beach volleyball program that began in the spring of 2016, Stevenson has fielded an NCAA Division III men’s indoor volleyball team since 2002. But by agreeing to sponsor men’s beach volleyball, the university is pushing the envelope.
“It’s game-changing,” said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). “There’s a lot of schools that don’t have the giddy-up or vision that Stevenson has to say, ‘This is a sport that makes sense for our student body and our campus and our part of the country, and we think it’s a sport that has a future, and we’re going to do this. We’re going to offer this at a varsity level to the men on our campus.’ Somebody has to be first.”
The Mustangs have developed a successful history in volleyball. The women’s program has qualified for 11 consecutive NCAA Division III tournaments, while the men have been to two postseasons, including a memorable run to the Final Four in 2014.
Those achievements, according to Adams, set the foundation for establishing the women’s beach volleyball program, which plays on four sand courts.
“When the NCAA passed legislation in 2012 to add women’s beach volleyball as an official sport and then Division II and III added it, we knew that it was the right fit for us because of the success of our volleyball program,” he said. “We knew it was a good fit for us, and beach volleyball has been a great fit for us for the women. And the men have been pining for it.”
Adams said he was further encouraged when Stevenson hosted the first USA Volleyball Men’s Beach Collegiate Challenge last September and he talked to several male players from athletic giants such as UCLA, Penn State and Arizona.
“The players who came to our event last year expressed how it was very difficult for them to improve their beach volleyball skills while they were playing on an indoor volleyball team at the collegiate level,” he said, adding that some said they would consider transferring to a university that fully sponsored varsity beach volleyball. “Some of them aren’t particularly good indoor players, but great beach players. But there’s very few paths.”
Adams said the university has already initiated a national search for a head coach. He said the men’s beach volleyball program would likely include several members of the indoor volleyball team, which plays in the spring, to fill out a projected roster of 10 to 15 players.
DeBoer said a common misconception is that beach and indoor volleyball are the same. While the fundamentals in both sports are similar, she compared finding indoor volleyball players to compete in beach to asking swimmers to participate in water polo.
DeBoer said NCAA administrators have been slow to adopt men’s beach volleyball due to concerns over installing sand courts, finding opponents to compete against and hiring coaches well-versed in the sport.
“Those are three big questions, and Brett Adams, to his credit, took the time to figure those things out,” she said. “I know Brett. He’s going to be out there recruiting other ADs in his league and the area, saying, ‘Hey, this is working. This is bringing students to our campus. Why don’t you bring students to your campus?’”
Another impetus for trying to encourage more NCAA schools to field varsity beach volleyball is creating a pipeline for the U.S. Olympic team. The United States has not medaled in the sport at the Summer Olympics since 2008, when Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser captured gold in Beijing.
DeBoer said while beach volleyball players from Brazil, Norway and Russia begin playing in their teenage years and represent their home nations in their mid-20s, the American squads primarily consist of former indoor players who migrated to beach volleyball in their mid-30s to preserve their bodies from the excess wear and tear caused by playing on indoor courts.
“What’s happening on the women’s side now with 10 years of colleges playing, you have a whole pipeline of elite women in their early to mid-20s that are very competitive internationally,” she said. “On the men’s side, we have no feeder because we don’t have men’s college beach volleyball. … We can’t compete with the pair that won in Tokyo, the Norweigians [Anders Mol and Christian Sandlie Sorum], who are in their mid-20s and have been playing beach volleyball for 10 years and have been playing professionally for seven or eight. So the men’s Olympic pipeline is in major trouble.”
Adams is hoping to turn the tide for the United States. But more importantly, he wants to provide an opportunity for those who have labored in the sport without emerging from the traditional hotbeds.
“We feel that it’s a great sport,” he said. “Geographically, the kids are playing from Florida to Maine during the summer. They’re not all in California and Florida and Texas. It fits the university’s growth model. Typically, volleyball kids are strong academic kids, and that’s another good fit for us. USC was the first women’s program in the country to start beach volleyball before the NCAA recognized it. So somebody has to be first, and we don’t have a problem with being the first.”