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Beach volleyball’s unusual home in a Midtown Anchorage park

Jalyn Osborne digs during a Pass To Play AK tournament game on Friday at Springer Park. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

When considering sports in Alaska, beach volleyball isn't exactly high on many lists.

That's partly why Erica Johnson decided four years ago to start a camp to teach kids about the sport.

Johnson found a set of mostly unused sand volleyball courts at Springer Park in Midtown and set to work with her "experiment." In the beginning, it was just a handful of junior high girls, including her daughter Hahni.

"There was like eight of us when we (first) came out to the court and my mom would buy Oreos for the winners," said Hahni, a sophomore setter for Dimond's high school team.

It wasn't easy at first, but Johnson's Pass to Play AK beach volleyball camps took off. Around 200 players ages 7-18 participate in the summer-long camps.

"I started this about four years ago as an experiment, just because I wanted kids to improve their passing skill in volleyball," Johnson said. "When my own kids were in 4th, 5th grade, I said … 'I really want to pass on my passion to them.' "

Julia Fetko dives toward the sideline during a Pass To Play AK beach volleyball tournament. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Pass to Play AK's camps and sessions for kids focus on beach doubles. Johnson said she wanted to provide a relaxed atmosphere where kids could get out and just play but also learn about the sport.

"(I) noticed a lot of things are scheduled for kids and we've lost that sense of 'pure play,' " said Johnson, 48, who played college volleyball at Gonzaga and professionally overseas in Germany. "I grew up where you're outside and you just go play.

"I wanted kids to do that with volleyball."

The sessions include children who have never played before, boys and high school stars who are looking for something different than the indoor volleyball they are accustomed to. Players are grouped into sessions based on age and ability. Scholarships are offered for kids with financial difficulties.

Three camps were held in May, but "super sessions," which include organized drills and pick-up games, are held twice weekly for most age groups through June and July.

A couple of Erica's best players have found success at tournaments in the Lower 48 too.

Four weeks after shoveling snow off the Springer courts this year, Hahni and Hope Todd placed second in a nationals qualifier-bid tournament May 20 in Seattle to qualify for the Junior Beach Tour Championships July 20 in Siesta Key, Florida.

Erica Johnson, left, talks to Pass To Play AK beach volleyball tournament players on Friday. Pass To Play hosts several tournaments in the summer in addition to its camps. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Another pair, Delaney Gill and Danae Stokes, will compete in a qualifier tournament Saturday in Spokane, Washington.

"We got in like four practices before we had to leave," said Todd, a junior at South. "Being able to compete against people we usually don't play in the Lower 48 … it's like, 'Wow, we can actually keep up.' "

Todd said beach volleyball is good practice for the indoor season because there's only two players on a team, so they touch the ball a lot more than they do on a sixes indoor team. She said the sand is also harder to maneuver, so it makes them quicker for the indoor season.

"It's more relaxed too," Todd said. "You play more, but it's more relaxed."

Johnson said running Pass to Play AK is a collaborative effort. She has around 12 coaches who help with camps and sessions, and the Alaska Outdoor Volleyball Association maintains the courts. AOVA director Jim Dooley built the Springer courts back in 2000, with Alaska sand from the Anchorage Sand and Gravel.

"… We have a great community here in Alaska — a volleyball community that really likes to encourage kids and stick together," Erica said.

In the beginning, Johnson ran into some road blocks with Springer Park, she said. The park was a common hangout for public drinking and the courts needed some improvements.

Johnson and Dooley helped get a grant to improve the park and she worked with the Anchorage Police Department to enforce open container laws in the area.

Mounds and tables that were common hangout spots for public drinking were removed from the area and a fence went up around the courts. More sand was added too.

"We had some challenges with this park … but look at it now, it's all quiet," Erica said.

Hope Todd signals to her teammate during a Pass To Play AK beach volleyball tournament. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

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