Girls’ volleyball: Top talent is choosing beach over indoor

It’s soft, soothing sand as opposed to stiff, unforgiving hardwood. It’s warm sunlight versus harsh LED light. It’s the salty air of the tides against the stench of sweat in dingy gyms.

For Cypress High’s Zoey Henson, last season’s Empire League girls’ MVP, life in club volleyball has been a constant rehab cycle. Her shoulder was messed up. Her back hurt constantly. In a tournament, she almost tore her meniscus. Although she only played beach volleyball for three years, she dropped the racquet and switched to sand.

That protects the joints. You can finish a hard-fought match and splash into the sea afterwards. What’s not to love?

“I can say that the percentage of girls who choose to go indoor over beach will definitely be a lot higher,” Henson said.

Introducing the latest trend in Southern California esports – a surge of interest on the beach that could have major implications for the future of college volleyball. Players like Newport Harbor’s Quinn Perry, Mater Dei’s Grace Hong and Marymount’s Julia Capps have opted to step away from strong indoor programs and focus solely on the beach in beach tournaments this summer.

Interest is reflected in a boom in NCAA beach volleyball participation. As interest in the sport increases and more schools roll out programs, the number of collegiate beach players has increased from 868 in 2016 to 1,485 in 2021, according to the NCAA demographic database.

“I think it’s just exciting for a lot of indoor girls who’ve played indoors all their lives… it’s this shiny new toy,” Perry said.

Huntington Beach High indoor head coach Craig Pazanti, who also coaches for Pinnacle Athletic Club, sees an impact on club volleyball – fewer girls in the major leagues as players commit to beach programs ahead of their senior season.

Two of those girls are Huntington Beach’s Haylee LaFontaine and Danielle Sparks, who won a U16 national championship as partners at an AAU tournament this summer. Both are indoor stars: LaFontaine is a dynamic outsider with a “robot arm,” as Pazanti put it, and Sparks is the setter who greases the wheels on the Oilers’ offense. Still, both decided last month to play for Cal State San Luis Obispo’s beach volleyball program.

Three reasons for this surge of interest:

1. More Versatility: On the beach, players aren’t locked into one position—they need to be able to hit, pass, block, serve, or dig.

2. More freedom of choice: As pointed out by Esperanza’s Clara Stillwell, players are substituted indoors by a manager if they make a mistake. There are no twists on the beach.

3. Less Risk of Injury: Running on the beach might be more physically demanding, but jumping on grains of sand is also a lot less painful than hitting on a hardwood court.

It all adds up to a growing movement.

“It’s contagious,” Henson said. “Everyone is starting to come here.”

Dave Mohs Tournament

The Marymount girls' volleyball players huddle together

The Marymount girls’ volleyball players huddle together before taking on San Diego Cathedral Catholic in last Saturday’s Dave Mohs tournament.

(Luca Evans/Los Angeles Times)

It was perhaps impossible for a Southern Section challenger to take on San Diego’s Cathedral High, who are unbeaten this season and won the annual Dave Mohs tournament in Huntington Beach Edison against LA Marymount on Saturday.

The highlight of the afternoon came in the Sailors semifinals with Huntington Beach as the Oilers trailed 19-10 in the second set and stunned Marymount before losing 16-14 in the third set. Marymount trainer Cari Klein could have a new program on her hands with 5-foot-10 freshman Samantha Destler, who knocked out Huntington Beach in the first set with three late kills and a big block.

San Clemente, meanwhile, maintained their claim to a top-10 finish in the Southern Section, beating Palos Verdes in the first round and then Santa Ana Mater Dei in the quarterfinals.

Outstanding Subclasses

Bishop Alemany has emerged as a serious threat in the Mission League, defeating Studio City Harvard-Westlake in three sets on Tuesday. The Warriors are 8-0. Chino Hills, meanwhile, has rolled over to 13-0.

Saugus lost their first game against Orange Lutheran on Saturday but they are currently the Division IV league and hold a 20-1 record. Girls’ volleyball: Top talent is choosing beach over indoor

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