Beach volleyball growing on Grand Strand sand

What was once a leisurely pick-up game on the beach has become one of the fastest growing sports worldwide, and the Myrtle Beach area is in perfect position to become a prime time player.

The addition of beach volleyball to the Summer Olympics in 1996 sparked a boom in the sport’s popularity around the globe, one that is finally finding a firm foothold on the Grand Strand.

More than 70 players from ages 12 to 18 competed in the AVP America Myrtle Beach Summer Slam on Saturday at a pair of downtown oceanfront venues, with many more tournaments on the horizon.

“It definitely has potential,” said tournament director Joe Goodwin, a longtime local beach volleyball player and physical education teacher better known as “Coach Goody” to his players and students. “We hold a tournament about once a month and the numbers keep growing.”

Goodwin recently teamed up with the Grand Strand Juniors indoor volleyball club to form Grand Strand Sand, which has more than 60 players in its first year. He credits the explosion of college beach volleyball programs for the increased interest at the junior level.

“The Olympics had a big impact, but I think the biggest thing was the NCAA starting programs,” said Goodwin. “Now you have scholarships opportunities available for beach volleyball.

“How many players are going to make the Olympic team? A very small number. But with (over 100) schools playing beach volleyball, kids have a good chance of earning a college scholarship.”

The depth of the talent pool was on full display Saturday along the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk at the former Pavilion courts and Pier 14, with most teams visiting from North Carolina and one hailing from as far away as Vancouver, Canada.

The Grand Strand was well represented by the mixed doubles tandem of Kayla Henley, a recent North Myrtle Beach High graduate, and Blake Goodwin, a 13-year-old attending Ocean Bay Middle.

“I mostly play (indoor), but beach is a lot of fun,” said Henley, who is going to Middle Tennessee State University on a volleyball scholarship. “It’s also a lot easier on your body.”

Blake Goodwin, the son of Joe Goodwin, was forced to play up in age in the girls division because there weren’t enough boys to fill a separate bracket. What started out as a pastime has become a passion that will carry him across the country to Hermosa Beach, Calif., later this month to compete in a major tournament.

“I just started playing with my dad and his friends and I loved it,” said the younger Goodwin, who plays more traditional sports at school since volleyball isn’t offered for boys. “It’s a good workout and it’s easier on your joints (than other sports) because of the sand.”

The local duo placed third in the Under-18 division, behind champion twin sisters Makaela and Makenzie Weathers of Surf City, N.C., who are attending Jacksonville on beach volleyball scholarships.

Sarah Kirk and Priya Subbaraya of Hope Mills, N.C., won the U-16 division; Anna Schneider and Olivia Noffsinger of Simpsonville won the U-14 class; and Campbell Thompson and Charleigh Anne Hewett of Whiteville, N.C., took the U-12 title.

Goodwin hopes the numbers and talent level continue to grow along with the sport on the Grand Strand, which has the home-court advantage of a 60-mile stretch of natural playing surface along the scenic Atlantic Ocean as a potential sports tourism boom.

“You don’t bring in the kind of numbers like you do with baseball, softball and soccer because you only have two to a team in beach volleyball,” the elder Goodwin said. “But players prefer the beach to the inland tournaments where you play in a sand pit with a fence around it. Myrtle Beach is a perfect fit.”

– Photo by Keith Jacobs/myhorrynews

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