While many college students spend their spring breaks on a sandy beach, Columbia High senior volleyball player Colene Hamilton will have plenty of sand between her toes for the next four years.
The 5-foot-9 outside hitter has given a verbal commitment to NCAA Division I Central Arkansas and is one of the first elite players in the region to receive a sand volleyball scholarship.
“I just like the beach better, it’s a lot less stressful for me,” said Hamilton, a four-year starter and one of the top players in the St. Louis area. “Whenever I play I don’t get all freaked out, I feel a lot more laid back and I like the environment a lot better.”
When asked about becoming something of a trendsetter in the metro-east, Hamilton said “It doesn’t really bother me. I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
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Hamilton is among the St. Louis area leaders in kills with 226 and as a four-year starter has 944 career kills and 1,238 digs. The Eagles are 117-19 with Hamilton in the lineup and are hoping their 25-0 start and senior-dominant lineup results in a long state tournament trip.
The ball explodes off her hand like a laser, but Hamilton’s advantage from playing beach volleyball comes in getting off shots from a variety of angles and having better precision on ball placement.
“As a sand player, that’s the majority of what you do,” said Althoff coach Sara Dietrich, a star player at Missouri State who also played a lot of elite-level sand volleyball during and after her court career ended. “You have to be smart with ball and roll shot it to different spots. Colene has that ability to bring it from the sand to the court that most high school girls don’t have.”
A year ago, 72 colleges and universities offered scholarship sand volleyball programs and USC defeated Florida State for the first sanctioned national championship.
The sport’s popularity in the Summer Olympics, where it almost always gets prime time television coverage, hasn’t hurt. It is classified as an emerging sanctioned sport by NCAA Division I and Division II with most of the programs concentrated in the southeast and west coast, but new programs are being added all the time at all levels, including NAIA and junior college.
It’s a completely different game than tradition indoor volleyball, which features six players on a court. Beach volleyball has two-person teams covering the entire sand court, so teamwork, ball placement and athletic ability are at a premium.
Communication is huge.
“Whenever I’m up at the net blocking, she’s back there by herself and has to read the ball,” Hamilton said of her teammate and training partner Jordan Jacobs, a senior at St. Dominic High in St. Charles, Mo.. “I like it because it’s just you and a partner. You can’t have a bad day, you have to keep each other up. It’s a completely different sport.”
Sand volleyball continues to grow in popularity after getting its start on the college level in 2012.
“Especially with the Olympics it’s so popular for people to watch and play,” Columbia Eagles coach Kelly Landgraf said. “It’s extremely fun to watch because there is only two people and when you’re on the sand it’s harder to move. Just the way that they’re able to work together and cover the whole court, it makes it really exciting.”
Most colleges field five two-person teams and play a match format similar to tennis. Sets are played to 21 in a tradition best-of-three format, with teams switching sides each seven points.
“I do enjoy court volleyball, but I think I’ve been playing court for so long that the sand was different and a challenge,” said Hamilton, who has been playing sand since seventh grade after a suggestion from one of her training coaches. “ Ever since then I just fell in love with it. It’s a change and I really like it.”
From the beach to the court
Area coaches have noticed a difference in Hamilton as well.
“Colene isn’t a 6-foot hitter that just overpowers and hits over the opposing blockers,” Freeburg coach Brooke Kloess said. “From what I’ve seen the past two years, she is such a threat because she sees the court so well and mixes up her shots.
“She’s unpredictable, which makes it tough to defend her. She already flies through the air and playing and training in sand is only making her jump that much higher and move that much quicker.”
Dietrich feels the sand volleyball movement is becoming a much bigger part of overall volleyball training. It could also open up more scholarship opportunities.
“I certainly hope so,” Dietrich said. “There’s some indoor club teams that are starting to have sand programs and playing both (sand and court volleyball), it is so beneficial for the other one. I’m going to really push my girls start to start playing more sand, it’s great for the legs and it’s fun.”
Even with her athleticism, Hamilton is a bit small at 5-9 to be a major Division I outside hitter. She could have switched positions, but instead opted for sand volleyball.
Central Arkansas coach Jeni Jones Chatman was a longtime assistant coach at Missouri State and Hamilton visited the campus early this week. She made her commitment after also considering offers from several other schools and plans on majoring in criminology.
“You don’t see a lot of Division I hitters out there that are 5-9,” Landgraf said. “With her athleticism and her explosive jump, this is the perfect fit for her because even though someone may be four or five inches taller, in the sand she’s going to out-jump them.”
Is there a dominant team out there?
Judging from scores and team records, Class 3A and 4A volleyball in the metro-east is like a crime scene. Plenty of teams are getting beat up, then beating up on other squads in one of the most balanced years in recent memory.
The closest to dominance so far are 3A Columbia (25-0) and 4A Edwardsville (16-3).
Edwardsville hasn’t lost to a metro-east team and is a perfect 4-0 in Southwestern Conference play. The Tigers are deep and experienced, led by Rachel Pranger (214 kills), Kate Martin (121 kills, 37 blocks, 29 aces), setter Rachel Verdun (9.21 assists per game) and Megan Woll (263 digs, 21 aces).
Edwardsville’s only losses are to St. Louis powerhouse St. Joseph’s Academy and two defeats at the Effingham Crossroads Classic to Glenbard West and St. Pius X.
The Tigers were pushed to three sets Tuesday by SWC rival O’Fallon, losing the first set 25-20 before rallying to win the next two 25-21, 25-15.
Many of the region’s top-ranked teams own wins over the others, leaving no clear pattern outside of Edwardsville and Columbia.
“This is a great season for the metro-east area teams,” O’Fallon coach Melissa Massey said. “There are so many great programs that each game is a test and a battle. Postseason is gonna be a dog fight.”