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Originally published April 9, 2014 at 4:58 PM | Page modified April 10, 2014 at 5:18 PM

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Husky volleyball team hits the beach

Washington is the eighth Pac-12 school to add sand volleyball as a varsity sport. The Huskies’ first season will consist of three matches, all played Saturday in Portland.

Special to The Seattle Times

UW sand volleyball

What: Washington is the eighth Pac-12 team to make sand volleyball a varsity sport. More than 40 schools nationally have a Div. I team.

The schedule: This spring, the Huskies will play three matches, all at Portland on Saturday — against Oregon, Portland State and Boise State. In the future, schedules will include about 10 matches.

The matches: Teams play five best-of-three matches.

How many players: There are 11 players on the Huskies’ roster, but there are only two players for each team on the sand at a time.

The coach: Keegan Cook, an assistant on Jim McLaughlin’s UW indoor staff, is the head coach.

Where do they play: The Huskies have several off-campus practice sites, outdoor and indoor, but hope to build a three-court facility on the UW campus.

Do UW’s indoor players play? Yes. In the future, UW will be able to offer six sand volleyball scholarships (the Huskies have 12 for indoor). Players signed to sand scholarships cannot play indoor their first two seasons but indoor players can play both all four seasons.

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They are not playing real beach volley ball. That requires a bikini. MORE
In beach volleyball they wear bikinis. MORE
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Seattle might not be Surf City, but it is the new home of a Division I women’s beach volleyball team.

Collegiately the sport is called sand volleyball, and this year Washington has joined more than 40 schools that have granted the game varsity-sport status.

Washington’s inaugural season involves a roster from last year’s NCAA Final Four indoor squad, and it will be brief — just one day. On Saturday, the Huskies will travel to Portland (The Courts in Eastmoreland) to play a tripleheader against fellow Northwest sand converts Oregon (10 a.m.), Portland State (noon) and Boise State (2 p.m.).

In the future, the spring sport might feature around 10 matches, the roster will likely include several sand specialists, and the team could play at an on-campus waterfront facility on Lake Washington.

That’s the brightest potential outcome of a three-year plan envisioned by Jim McLaughlin, UW’s indoor coach and director of volleyball. In this inaugural season, McLaughlin has assigned first-year indoor assistant Keegan Cook to serve as sand coach while he stays focused on indoor and recruiting.

“I like the direction it’s going, and I think it’s going to help our indoor game,” McLaughlin said.

“We decided if we’re going to do it, we want to do it like the indoor game — do it right and be successful,” he said. “But the priority is the indoor game. If this (sand) supplements that, we’re going to be good.”

Beach volleyball, as demonstrated by the interest generated by Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh during their string of three Olympic gold-medal wins starting in 2004, can attract a big following. By 2009 a few indoor college coaches floated the idea of getting the game added to the NCAA’s inventory of sponsored sports.

A handful of warm-weather schools started competing in 2012. McLaughlin had ambitions of joining the movement and recruited an international beach star, Summer Ross, for the start of UW’s 2011 indoor season.

Washington delayed plans to add the sport, waiting to see if more schools would come aboard. Ross transferred and has since gone pro. Washington is the eighth Pac-12 school to make sand volleyball a varsity sport.

“My biggest fear early on was this would be too much,” McLaughlin said. “But what we’re finding is that it also can invigorate players. These kids love it. They’re in the sand, it’s easier on your body, and there’s a fitness component to it that’s good. It’s a different enough game that it kind of revives you.”

The benefits? “When you’re playing a two-man game, you can’t hide,” he said. “You’ve got to play the entire game and have a complete skill level. You’ve got to pass, set, hit shots, spike and serve. Having all these kids do all those skills all the time is really a benefit to their development.”

Cook, 28, was an assistant at Saint Mary’s last year and helped that school prep for its debut sand season in 2013. Like UW’s indoor players, he’s learning as he goes.

“My original tone was to mold things after the indoor game: very diligent preparation, detailed, fast-paced practices, lots and lots of reps, clearly defined methods,” he said. “All of which sounds good, but what I found is the learning curve was so steep for the girls was that they didn’t need things quite so advanced.

“What they needed was time in the sand, playing two-on-two, fewer drills and a slower pace of practice. They needed to be allowed to play and make mistakes.”

The team started practicing in the first week of February three to four times a week, training primarily at Golden Gardens Park in Ballard, but sometimes at Alki Beach, courts in Juanita, Kirkland or, on bad-weather days, Seattle’s Sandbox Sports.

“I think it’s fun,” said junior Krista Vansant, the 2013 national player of the year. “It’s a very different game, and it’s fun for all of us to do something different. We’re all learning the more strategic part of volleyball.”

McLaughlin said he is awaiting approval of a proposed three-court (one covered) facility in the vicinity of the new UW track. Eventually he will be able to offer six sand-specific scholarships (he gets 12 for indoor) and anticipates someday hiring a sand-specialized coach.

Players signed to a sand scholarship, he says, cannot play indoor for their first two seasons, but indoor players can go both ways all four years.

“We’ll always have some crossover,” he said. “We’re still working on the model, how we’re going to do it. ...

“I think I just told our administration to give us three years. But I want to make sure it’s done right.”

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