Pilot beach volleyball program engages middle school athletes post-pandemic

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Photo credit: Madison Witt

Elle Vandewhege (’26) serves a ball at a beach volleyball scrimmage against Windward School. Her partner, Similce Diesel (’26), was prepared to return the opponent’s ball.

By Surya Patil, Staff Reporter

Disrupted routine. Isolation. Slowed lifestyle.

These are all research-based, shared experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown: a common experience that prevented people around the world from continuing their normal way of life.

Student-athletes were no exception. According to The New York Times, indoor team sports, like volleyball, were considered significantly less safe than outdoor individual sports. According to USA Volleyball, COVID-19 restrictions and protocols caused some volleyball clubs in the U.S. to shut down entirely in the initial months of the pandemic, and almost all clubs must still abide by safety restrictions. USA Volleyball said the restrictions dramatically impacted volleyball clubs around the nation. Indoor volleyball players at Archer faced these same challenges at the clubs they play for.

Eighth grader Elle Vandeweghe could not play volleyball tournaments for over two years due to COVID-19 restrictions. Vandeweghe said she joined Archer’s pilot beach volleyball middle school team because she missed being in the supportive atmosphere she had with her club team.

“I had not played volleyball in a very long time. I was a little out of shape. I was not used to moving in the sand, so it was definitely a challenge at first,” Vandeweghe said. “Once I started actually hitting the ball, I got more comfortable. I also had a very encouraging partner. Volleyball, if not more than any sport, is all a mental game, and you have to stay positive. Keeping that attitude was a goal I had for myself this season because I knew it would make me a better player.”

Any middle schooler who signed up for the team was able to play. Many of the players were new to both indoor and beach volleyball. Sixth grader Arissa Lalani had only played indoor volleyball, and, like Vandeweghe, had taken a break during the pandemic. She said she wanted an opportunity to refine her skills in a new environment.

“Everyone was always kind to each other. We would always give each other tips and everyone was friendly,” Lalani said. “A lot of things that I was not getting better at when I played indoor volleyball I was able to grow by playing beach volleyball. It was very different from my past experiences, and I definitely want to be a part of the team next year.”

The team was comprised of 13 players, and they played two scrimmages throughout the season. They were defeated 126-68 by Windward School and 126-51 by Wildwood School. Both schools send out two teams who both play three sets to 21. The score is the total amount of points won in all six sets by each school.

The team’s coach is Ellina Domnidou, a Greek professional beach volleyball player. She said a benefit of the pandemic was the influx of indoor volleyball players who began practicing beach volleyball. Domnidou said one of the advantages of playing on the beach is that players become better athletes as a whole. For example, there are no positions in beach volleyball, and every team consists of two players that do not substitute in or out during games.

“Some of the girls that I coached decided to take up beach volleyball this spring, and I can say that they had tremendous growth throughout the season. For the beginners, having to touch every ball can be very challenging, considering the outdoors factors,” Domindou said. “But in time, whoever puts the work in improves. There were three specific improvements during the beach season: serving, ball control and agility.”

Seventh grader Nicole Svendeson said she was able to set up private practices with Domindou, which helped her serves and game strategy.

“It was really fun for Coach Ellina to watch me grow,” Svendson said. “I definitely improved my ball control and hitting my serves down the middle. I have got my service points down.”

Vandeweghe said she aimed to be a leader the younger girls on the team could look up to. She said she was extremely proud of the progress the team made together as well as how the team pushed through difficulties.

“There were a few times where practices got canceled, or there was a lot of wind. Volleyball is really hard to play in the wind,” Vandeweghe said. “I am so proud of them for sticking with it and not quitting in the middle of the season. It was such a good environment and community, and to just get to play together, the sport we have all grown to love, at the beach — it is just a dream.”

Domindou said in beach volleyball, players have to cover the whole court and have to constantly run in different directions. She noticed throughout the season this was what led to her players being more agile. She said drilling the players on both sides of the court, especially on the side with worse conditions, made them think faster and be more aware of their space on the court.

“Some of the volleyball players I coached in the fall played club [volleyball] before COVID. But, during the pandemic, nothing was open,” Domindou said. “Everyone who was playing or practicing consistently pre-COVID had to get back in athletic shape when sports opened back up, so playing beach volleyball in the meantime was the perfect way to do it.”