Alaskan is digging collegiate sand ball

Former Chugiak star will play new women's sport at Georgia State.

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 12, 2012 

Former Chugiak standout Karlee Kavanaugh, right, follows the ball during the 2010 Class 4A state volleyball tournament.

ERIK HILL / DAILY NEWS ARCHIVES 2010

Life's about to become a beach for Chugiak High volleyball player Karlee Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh will head to Georgia State in the fall to play sand volleyball, the newest NCAA sport for women.

About two dozen schools are participating in the inaugural Division I season this spring, and more will come on board next season, including Georgia State.

That makes Kavanaugh a pioneer.

And given that she grew up in a state with plenty of coastline but not many sandy beaches conducive to the sport made famous in recent Summer Olympics by women wearing skimpy swimsuits, she's also a bit of an oddity.

"I'm from Alaska, and you'd think that is the last place you can become successful in beach volleyball," Kavanaugh said.

Kavanaugh blazed her own trail to Georgia State.

At 5-foot-9, she isn't tall by collegiate standards -- not like her sister Kasey, who is two years older, stands 6-2 and plays traditional Division I volleyball at Eastern Carolina. In an attempt to broaden her opportunities, she decided to go to a USA Volleyball beach tryout in Chicago in the spring of 2010. At that point, her only experience in the sport --called beach volleyball at the Olympic level but sand volleyball at the college level -- came in a handful of summer tournaments in Anchorage.

"I was definitely really intimidated at first because I didn't know the level of the other players and I didn't know anyone there -- I was just flinging myself into the situation. I told myself the worse thing that can happen is I don't make it, so I might as well try," she said.

Kavanaugh wound up being named to a 10-girl team that traveled to Russia in the summer of 2010. It was part cultural exchange and part competition; she trained and played in Moscow and on the shores of Black Sea. Misty May Treanor, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was one of her coaches.

"That was when I realized, wow, I just love this. This is what I'm supposed to do," she said.

She continued to play court volleyball at the high school and club level in Anchorage, but started sending emails to colleges that had announced plans to add sand volleyball. She was invited to USA Volleyball sand training camps in Florida the last two winters as well as to a tournament last summer in California, where Georgia State coaches saw her.

Along the way she learned to appreciate the challenges of sand volleyball, where there are two players per side, and court volleyball, where there are six.

"You have to be excellent at all the skills of the game -- you can't just be good at passing or attacking," said Kavanaugh, who was a defensive specialist in her sophomore season at Chugiak High and an outside hitter who also played in the back row in her junior and senior seasons. "You also have to be able to read and anticipate what the other side is doing more because you have so much more ground to cover.''

And, it's played on sand, not on a court.

"It's so much harder in sand, oh my gosh," she said. "You have to have much more of a jump. In the sand, you get stuck down in it when you jump so it's really important to have those strong legs."

The NCAA introduced sand volleyball in an effort to expand opportunities for women and some schools, like Georgia State, are adding it in an effort to achieve Title IX gender equity requirements. The college version will be a bit more modest than the Olympic version -- the NCAA requires uniforms similar to those worn by college track and field athletes, meaning no bare midriffs.

"I think it's going to grow like crazy," Kavanaugh said. "I think it's so cool. I really love how I got this opportunity, because it shows that no matter where you come from, no matter which state, if you love beach volleyball you can make it happen. I just hope other girls from this state look at me and say, wow, I can do that too."


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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