The University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears have transitioned nicely to Beach Bears.
The university’s inaugural beach volleyball team (the first college program in the state) is 10-3 going into the tournament it will host at its new outdoor courts this weekend. The Beach Bears have only lost to No. 7 LSU, No. 16 TCU and a Tulane team that is close to being ranked among the nation’s top teams. All are established programs.
UCA has dominated matches against other first-year programs.
"When we began the program this spring, we honestly had no idea what we had," said coach Jeni Jones Chatman. "It’s been very encouraging when coaches of established programs have come to us and said, ‘You guys are really good for a first-year program.’ It’s been really exciting to watch how this program has evolved and the players have become students of the game."
Chatman credits the UCA administration (particularly then-president Tom Courtway and athletic director Brad Teague) that once they decided to add the sport, they mandated it be done in a first-class manner.
"They asked us what we needed to build the program and we said scholarships and facilities," Chatman said. "They listened to us (Chatman and assistant Matt Huskey)."
The new courts feature a berm framed by the university’s nature preserve will be on display in the first collegiate beach tournament in Arkansas.
"Having a facility on campus is huge," Chatman said. "Some other programs have to drive several minutes to get to a place to practice and play. When we went to a tournament hosted by Austin Peay (Tennessee) earlier this year, their facility was 45 minutes away and was indoors.
"Because of the layout of the land and the nature preserve, the three courts we have at our facility are staggered instead of side by side. At first, I didn’t like that, but once they were built, it’s a special setting with each individual court getting the feel of a center course with a berm and the nature preserve in the background."
And barring inclement weather conditions, this weekend’s tournament promises to be a smaller-scale Olympic setting minus bikinis and the ocean.
But Chatman and UCA officials are working to make it an energetic atmosphere, fun and student- and family-friendly. There will be a DJ and a food truck with smoothies. In addition to bleachers, fans are encouraged to take lawn chairs and blankets and congregate the berm. Bring the kids. Bring the dogs. Enjoy.
And fans will discover, as UCA’s players, that beach volleyball is a different style of game than the indoor game. It’s two-on-two with each player have to execute every skill and communicate on the fly.
"Take Heather Schnars, for example," Chatman said. "She was an All-American in the indoor game but had to learn to play defense the beach game. Heather has been able to take those attacking skills that she had in the indoor game and figured out how to use them in the beach game. And for players like Kate (Elman) and Amy (South), who have never had to be attacking players in their lives, to step in and do the things that they’re doing is pretty impressive. And Megan Nash has become a phenomenal blocker, doing some things she did not do in the indoor game.
"But that’s just a tribute to their work ethic and their drive as volleyball players and as people. They have been willing to do things out of their comfort zone."
There is limited communication between players and coaches in beach volleyball, only one timeout per set.
"One of the biggest differences is the players have more control in beach volleyball," Chatman said. "They have to continually process information and adjust the game plan. Which player do you attack and where? What are the tendencies when a player goes to the net? Where is the opening when a player goes to a certain area of the court?
"It’s not just ball watching. You have to be aware of what your teammate and opponents are going or might be going. If you fall down, you’ve got to get up quickly. You have to have a short memory. If you make a mistake, the ball is coming your way again pretty quickly and it’s just you and one other teammate.
"Beach volleyball is not always about power. It’s about processing info, things like just how to place a serve or whether a point can be won by an overhead lob or a soft shot to a vacant place on the court. And you have to adjust to sun, wind and other weather conditions. It’s how set your feet and how you contact the ball. It’s a lot of problem solving.
"Even somebody like Heather Schnars struggled early but she’s now becoming as good of player on the sand as she was indoors."
And because the beach game requires every skill of every player, it’s always evolving.
"There is always a learning curve that’s never complete," Chatman said. "Our players have learned a lot from watching more experienced plays. The tough part is you’re always a learn and sometimes, you have to fail to be good again."