FeaturesBeach Volleyball is "serving" with increasing popularity among collegiate...

Beach Volleyball is “serving” with increasing popularity among collegiate athletics

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Beach volleyball has spread from its Pacific roots across the globe, even to the artificially placed sands of Hattiesburg, Mississippi where Southern Miss has established itself as a leading figure in the blossoming sport.

Beach volleyball is one of, if not the fastest growing sports in collegiate athletics. According to the Association of Volleyball Professionals, there were 56 beach volleyball teams when beach volleyball officially became a sanctioned sport by NCAA in 2016. 

There are now 334 Division 1 volleyball programs along with hundreds of other programs in the NCAA as well, according to the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA).

Southern Miss got on board with the growth early, debuting in 2018 and becoming the first Division One team to host a beach volleyball match in Mississippi in 2019.

At the forefront of Southern Miss’ dive into beach volleyball is graduate student Olivia Hepworth, who was one of the first two players to compete for the program.

Hepworth plays as the sole remaining of the first two players to play beach volleyball for Southern Miss (Photo/Sean Smith)

Hepworth joined Abbey Wilson as the first players to compete for the program in 2018, which eventually grew to a roster of 14 players the following season and now has grown to a roster of 17 players.

While the program began under the guidance of then indoor volleyball Head Coach Stephanie Radecki and featured mainly indoor players, the program has gradually transitioned to almost exclusively beach players like Hepworth under its exclusive beach volleyball Head Coach Shawn Taylor.

“We have just made huge strides since I’ve been here…this year, we have a completely separate roster from the indoor team and I think that’s a huge testament to what Shawn [Taylor] has done with the program, how he has recruited and prioritized the program,” Hepworth said. “It’s been such an incredible opportunity and I absolutely believe that with his leadership, we will continue in that direction of making huge strides every year for not just our campus but also the community and Mississippi as a whole.”

Koby Moore and Charlie Luttrell of WUSM 88.5 FM’s 4th Street Sports Show interview Beach Volleyball Head Coach Shawn Taylor and graduate student player Olivia Hepworth.

But while Southern Miss has pioneered beach volleyball in Mississippi, Taylor was a trailblazer in the sport prior to being hired to the program in 2019. Taylor served as the head coach just 90 miles away at Spring Hill College, where he posted a 53-32 record over three years. 

With over 20 years of experience in the sport, Taylor admires the program’s progression but sees room for improvement.

“We don’t still have a ton of experience because the program is so new and then we had COVID, so we still have a lot of players that don’t really have that full resume that they’ve been building on,” Taylor said. “So we’re still getting better every time we step on the sand. That’s my philosophy is [if] we want to be the best, we’ve got to go play the best.”

Taylor’s philosophy reflects in Beach Volleyball’s unique scheduling. The Golden Eagles started their 2022 season with 20 matches on the road, including travels to Florida and California where they played ranked opponents FAU, TCU, Pepperdine, Long Beach State and more.

The Golden Eagles are 3-12 to start the season but Hepworth and Taylor value the experience that playing ranked opponents gives the team.

“It’s absolutely a process that I feel like the team has bought into,” Hepworth said. “It’s a really cool opportunity to get to play the best players in the country consistently on a weekly basis so being able to play great talent is a lot of fun and challenging, but it’s an opportunity for us to be able to measure that we’ve made great strides in the program these last couple years but also with this specific team that we have here now…I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Hepworth prepares to serve during a home match in 2021. (Photo/Sean Smith)

As beach volleyball continues to grow across the country, its alignment is beginning to mold. But for Southern Miss, what was certain is now uncertain for the program.

After competing in the Coastal Collegiate Sports Assocation (CCSA), Southern Miss recently joined Conference USA (C-USA) as the conference officially recognized beach volleyball. 

With Southern Miss making a transition to Sun Belt, a conference without beach volleyball affiliation, the Golden Eagles are temporarily left with an uncertain future after this season.

Taylor said while there may be hesitancy for what the future brings, the fluidity of conference change would have brought that either way.

“There were teams leaving Conference USA…whether we left or stayed, there was going to be changed regardless,” Taylor said. “I think we just have to be patient and wait and see. Beach volleyball is the fastest growing sport in the history of the NCAA and it is super hot right now. People are doing what they can to add programs, develop conferences and make sure that it has a place not just for today but moving forward.”

But Taylor and the team’s focus is on what can be done in the current season. Southern Miss is set to have its 2022 home debut starting April 1 in the Southern Mis Beach Invitational, followed by another home invitational the next weekend.

It’s the home matches that Hepworth and the team look forward to. With renovations to the facility’s sand, netting, fencing and the construction of a new porch for fans, Hepworth says the gameday atmosphere is unlike anywhere else.

“I would say that playing in our facility is hands down one of the nicest in the country,” Hepworth said. “We have an incredible opportunity to get to play there and it’s worth coming to check out. It’s a sport kind of like none other- it’s fast-paced, exciting but it’s also a little bit more relaxed.”

While Hepworth notes the positive reception that the program has had from its supporters and a growing fanbase, she and Taylor note that spreading awareness and growing the program is still a process.

“One of the challenges in the state of Mississippi is volleyball is not one of the big sports at the high school and middle school level. And so then it becomes like, where do you recruit your talent?” Taylor said. “Having COVID is kind of throwing a wrench into things but we want to start doing things with the community so we have that interaction and we can promote the game, Southern Miss and our team.”

But as the program and the sport has shown progression over the past years, Taylor and Hepworth are hopeful that Southern Miss will continue to make strides in the sand.

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