Many of the same players that helped New Smyrna Beach High School to a district indoor volleyball championship last season are now helping lead the Barracudas to this weekend’s state girls’ beach volleyball championships.
New Smyrna Beach will play in the state championship tournament April 30-May 1 at Hickory Point Beach sand volleyball complex in Tavares.
The girls’ beach volleyball championships are sanctioned by the Sunshine State Athletic Conference and the Florida Region of USA Volleyball. Next season, the Florida High School Athletic Association will sanction girls’ beach volleyball, one of the fastest growing sports in the nation.
The NSB beach volleyball team, which is in its third season, dominated its competition this year, winning 10 of 11 regular-season matches and then charging to the Region 3AA tournament title on April 15 with three consecutive sweeps.
The ’Cudas beat Orlando Dr. Phillips, West Orange and Spruce Creek by identical 5-0 scores to advance to state. DeLand and Seabreeze also competed in the Region 3AA tourney.
Spruce Creek, the tourney runner-up, had a chance to join New Smyrna Beach at state, but lost in the first round of a state qualifying tournament last week.
NSB beach volleyball coach Jonathan Cunningham said one reason for the Barracudas’ success is Brittany Owen, the school’s indoor volleyball coach, has embraced beach volleyball and is Coach Cunningham’s assistant on the beach volleyball team.
“We have a really good indoor program,” Coach Cunningham said. “Brittany (encourages) a lot of the indoor girls to play beach.”
According to the American Volleyball Coaches Association, women’s beach volleyball is the fastest growing NCAA Division I sport over the last five years.
There are more than 100 colleges and universities on all levels that offer the sport.
“A lot of schools are offering beach scholarships now, so a lot more volleyball players are dedicating themselves to beach volleyball,” Coach Cunningham said.
NSB’s top player, senior Kate McLaughlin, has accepted a beach volleyball scholarship from Florida Atlantic University.
Kate helped lead NSB’s indoor team to the state playoffs three years in a row, including the 2018 Class 7A state semifinals. She also is a member of the Cape Coast Beach Volleyball Club in Brevard County and is a 2020 Sunshine State Outdoor Volleyball Association state champion.
Unlike indoor volleyball, which consists of six-person teams, high school and college beach volleyball is a flighted competition with five seeded two-person teams. With just two on a side, the players need to be more well-rounded in their volleyball skills. Each two-out-of-three-games match is worth a point toward the team score.
New Smyrna Beach’s team has 16 players with 10 seeded players on the five teams and six alternates. Kate and freshman Bri Luoma are partners on NSB’s No. 1 team.
“Bri is really good now, She is going to get even better,” Coach Cunningham said.
The ’Cudas have just three seniors: Kate, Brooke Kornegay, who plays on the No. 5 team, and Melody Whitcomb, who plays at No. 3.
“They’re my team leaders,” Coach Cunningham said.
With most of the team coming back next year and three years of sand-court training under their belts, the ’Cudas have a chance to be even better next season when beach volleyball becomes an official FHSAA sport.
“We really had to teach them a lot,” said Coach Cunningham, who has been playing volleyball on the beach since he was 16 and played for FSU’s club team in college.
“I think a couple of years ago the only one who was playing beach was Kate,” he said. “Last year the indoor (club) season was shut down, so a lot of them played (on beach volleyball club teams), and that got them really interested in beach.
“Even the ones who plan to play indoor volleyball in college, they see the benefits of also playing beach, getting quicker and jumping higher because of the movement in the sand,” Coach Cunningham said.