It’s hard to fathom the growing popularity of beach volleyball in Arizona, a landlocked state almost 500 miles away from the nearest coastline in Southern California.
Phoenix Xavier Prep beach volleyball head coach Tim McHale has been defying that logic for almost 30 years.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when volleyball wasn’t around,” McHale said.
McHale has a total 12 titles as the school’s indoor and beach volleyball coach. Xavier has a dynasty of six state titles in the 6A conference in the past eight seasons.
The blistering heat and beaming sunshine in the Valley are certainly conducive to the sport’s ideal weather conditions. And, there is some sand in the desert.
Under overcast skies and the atmospheric whiff of rain on a late Monday afternoon, McHale trained the Gators (4-0) until the precipitation and began to clump the sand.
Unphased by the weather, McHale delivers instructions to his all-girls team in four sandboxes like a military general ready for all conditions.
“Make sure we’re prepared,” McHale said to the team. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like. This is what we do. We’re prepared for whatever happens in Tucson, rain, wind, whatever.”
McHale explains how rainy weather affects his team’s performance.
“This is considered playable because it isn’t a safety issue; it’s just the weather,” McHale said about the mist. “It rains a little bit heavier the ball get a little bit heavier. It’s bad for the shoulders so they might slow or get rid of that. We had to cycle our volleyballs. It’s like baseballs: if they get harder to throw, it’s bad for pitchers’ arms. Similar thing here.”
Xavier eventually defeated Salpointe 4-1 on Wednesday, continuing its win streak to begin the season after failing to play for a state title for just the second time last season.
The Gators also defeated their rivals Tempe Corona del Sol (1-2) on March 1 and Gilbert Perry 3-2 on March 6. They avenged their loss to the Perry (3-1) who knocked them out of the playoffs in last season’s 6A quarterfinals.
“Those wins were nice to have, but we know that Perry will regroup and come back,” McHale said. “Whenever Corona and Xavier gets together, it’s always a dogfight, indoor or beach.”
McHale is the product of a Canadian family whose relatives have strong volleyball backgrounds. They moved to Southern California in the early 1970s, and his mother played heavily between the cities of Playa Del Rey in Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
McHale moved the Valley in the 1980s, where he was an anomaly as a volleyball player.
“It was weird growing up in Arizona known as ‘the boy who played volleyball’ and as I got older in the 80s and the 90s, I found more of my kind,” he said.
When he arrived at McHale in 1991, he became an indoor volleyball coach. He made the transition to beach volleyball after the Arizona Interscholastic Association the sport in 2011.
Top players Trinity Cavanaugh, Shea Sciarappo and the reigning 6A Player of the Year Shannon Shields are seasoned indoor volleyball players who fell in love with the transition to the sand.
“I play both indoor and outdoor but everything I love about outdoor comes from the team atmosphere out here,” Sciarappo said. “It’s really fun and I get to hang out with all my friends and just keep learning the game.”
Shields prefers playing outdoors.
“I used to play indoor mainly because I love the outdoors more than in the gym all day, and it’s much looser and I can make more decisions than with indoor,” Shields said.
The adjustment from indoor to outdoor game rules changes can be hard to understand at first. This becomes advantageous for Xavier Prep’s 2-on-2 pairings and attack schemes, knowing that many of their opponents are novices to the beach game.
“We’ve been working a lot with the high line over the blocks because we know a lot of girls who play indoor are switching to sand, so they’re probably taller and want to be up and blocking,” Sheilds said. “We’ve also worked a lot on short cuts and things around the block and around the defensive plays.”
With just two players per side, personalities can play an increased role.
“Ideally, your two best players volleyball players will play on the same team, but because its pairs sometimes personalities don’t mesh,” McHale said. “We have to be patient with certain pairings in which we know that it’s going to be good, but have to learn through the awkwardness of learning how to communicate well with each other. It’s like a relationship, a mini-marriage.”
McHale takes pride in the sport’s resurgence nationwide, largely credited to the women’s game.
“The 80s and 90s was the golden era and then it kind of went dark for a little while,” McHale said. “We started with six (high school teams) and now there’s almost 70 in six years. At the collegiate level, there was four and now there’s over 100 teams. There will be a small schools national championship in Tavares, Florida this year. In the state of Arizona, there are five women’s collegiate beach teams. You look at that alone, it’s fun. It’s exciting.”
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