Volleyball tourney gets under way

THE NET SET

May 22, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Ocean City -- A little bit of summer has come to the beach this weekend with the first of six volleyball tournaments.

The i.e. Volley Summer Series is under way now, the first of four such i.e.-sponsored events scheduled for the sand this summer, and two other tournaments are also planned.

"It's a pro-am series," says "Salty" Selt, co-owner of the Endless Summer Surf shops in Ocean City. "But what's really neat is we've got 30 to 60 courts where the amateurs play. That's 30 nets, 300 to 400 volleyball players -- balls everywhere."

Mr. Selt is also a co-owner of the i.e. clothing company, which lTC makes beach and volleyball wear and is one of the tournaments' sponsors. His knowledge is first-hand -- he is himself a pro player who will compete in the summer tournaments.

"You've got to be in much better shape to play beach volleyball," he says. "There's only two of you covering the space, instead of six, like there is in indoor volleyball. And of course, there's wind, too."

Participants play barefoot in the sand, with an 8-foot net bisecting a court that's 30 feet wide and 60 feet long. And duos that play together regularly have an advantage, Mr. Selt says.

"Teams that stick together tend to do better," says Mr. Selt, who plays with Damon Deppe as his regular partner.

"It's just like a marriage -- you try to find the chemistry. There's a lot to be said for longevity in volleyball teams. There's only two people trying to cover 600 square feet.

"It's a matter of reactions, of knowing what your partner is going to do."

Mr. Selt and his business partner Dan Hopkins (who doesn't play volleyball -- "He surfs," says Mr. Selt) brought volleyball tournaments to Ocean City in 1986 through a somewhat roundabout series of events.

"My partner and I were professional skateboarders in the '70s," he says. "We had the [surf] shops and we were looking for promotions for the stores. . . . We saw our first volleyball tournament in 1985 and we said, 'Hey, what a great promotion -- all you need is sunshine!' I mean, you've got these huge guys, 6-foot-4, buffed out -- even if you don't know anything about it, it's a great spectator sport!"

So in 1986 they persuaded the city to give beach volleyball a try, and the East Coast Volleyball Championships were held on the city's beach.

Three years ago, Mr. Selt says, they decided to open up the tournaments to amateurs, too.

"There are so many people watching, we wanted to give them a place to play. It's gotten more popular over the years."

It doesn't hurt either that two of the best players on the East Coast -- brothers Frank and Richmond Hall -- hail from Delaware's Bethany Beach, just a few miles up Coastal Highway.

"They'll be here -- it's easy money for them!" says the exuberant Mr. Selt, who adds good-naturedly that the Hall brothers wouldn't pass up a chance to beat him on the sand.

The sport's growing popularity can literally be traced in the sand: The beach area between Dorchester and Talbot streets is now officially designated the Ocean City Volleyball Beach by the city's Recreation and Parks Department.

Another sponsor of the i.e. tournament series, now in its fifth year, is Columbia-based Coastal Sports Management Inc.

"We donated the nets and put them up just to get the sport started in Ocean City," says Coastal's Don Abramson, himself a former professional beach volleyball player.

Ocean City is also a good location for the sport, says Mr. Abramson.

"It's a great beach. It's a terrific place to have the tournament -- it's clean, it's flat."

And the sport's fans range from casual passers-by on the boardwalk to people who plan ahead.

"A lot of people actually plan their family vacations around tournaments," says Mr. Abramson.

Beach volleyball, like surfing, skateboarding and in-line skating, started in California and came East, Mr. Abramson says, and it caught on fast.

"Two or three years ago, the whole fashion trend was volleyball," he says. "It became kind of a lifestyle sport. It's a clean, healthy image."

Anyone can play, and the six tournaments all offer amateur opportunities. (See box.) There are male, female and mixed teams, and the tournaments are divided into levels of expertise, with B play for beginners, and then advancing to BB, A and AA levels (in ascending order of skill). Although the games go only to 15 points, the pro games can run as long as an hour, says Mr. Selt. The pros play for money, with top winners taking home $1,000, Mr. Selt says. Amateurs can win prizes such as clothing, beach chairs and sunglasses.

Other sponsors this year include Molson beer, Continental Airlines, All Sport, Mikasa (a volleyball maker), Tropicana and Carrera, the sunglasses manufacturer.

The popular sport will gain international recognition in 1996, when it becomes an Olympic event during the Games in Atlanta, Mr. Selt says. As is true for Olympic basketball, the competition will be open to pro players, and is expected to attract such national players as St. John Smith, Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes.

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