Squint your eyes just a little bit and use your imagination. There you see it: palm trees swaying in the breeze, the sound of calypso music tickling your spirit and warm sand blanketing your little piggies in happiness. Condensation drips from a pitcher of your favorite adult beverage, and volleyballs bounce through a clear blue sky like pingpong balls in a lottery drawing.
Surely this is one of the world’s great beaches, maybe in the Caribbean or the South Pacific. And surely, you’ve won that lottery drawing.
Then you open your eyes wider, look around and realize you are still in Kansas City. The palm trees are plastic, and the calypso music is canned. But the sand is very real, along with the adult beverages and the volleyballs. Most definitely the volleyballs.
Despite our landlocked location nearly 800 miles from the closest honest-to-goodness ocean and its requisite beaches, beach volleyball courts and their sandy accoutrements are becoming as common as barbecue in the Kansas City area.
About a dozen public facilities with as many as 18 courts in each complex operate around the city. Another half dozen or so neighborhood associations and apartment complexes also operate private sand volleyball courts. The Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department just opened its second sand court at Brookside and East 56th Street.
It’s hard to put a solid number on it, but most summer nights, about 3,000 people take off their shoes and smack a volleyball around somewhere in the city and its suburbs.
“Kansas City certainly has a more active beach volleyball culture than any place in the Midwest, with the exception of Chicago or Dallas,” said Diane Plymale of Overland Park, who has organized tournaments and played beach volleyball in Kansas City since moving here from Melbourne, Fla., in 1997.
“My friends back in Florida are truly shocked at how much good beach volleyball there is here,” she said.
Todd Leeper is another coastal transplant, coming to Lawrence by way of the U.S. Army from San Diego, where he played at an early age.
“The only difference here is you can’t jump in the ocean to cool off when you’re done,” Leeper said. “But sitting on a deck under an umbrella, drinking a beer and talking with friends, waiting for your court time — yeah, this is just how it is in California.”
Leeper was talking while sitting on the deck at Shawnee Mission Beach Volleyball in Shawnee, the largest beach volleyball complex in the metro. Its 18 sand courts are filled with league players each weeknight from about 6 p.m. until 10 p.m., with overflow and open play keeping all the courts busy on weekends.
Although many players call it sand volleyball, the official sport according to the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee is called beach volleyball. The NCAA approved beach volleyball as a Division I sport in October 2009. Division II and III schools were approved in January 2015 with its first championship game scheduled for 2016. The closest Division I school with a team is the University of Nebraska, which launched a women’s team in 2013. The Huskers posted a 6-2 record in the 2015 season. The Lady Huskers’ only losses this year were to the University of Hawaii and the University of Southern California — where they actually have beaches.
Beach volleyball has been an official Olympic sport since 1996, with the United States winning a gold medal in men’s or women’s play at every summer games since.
The recognition of the game as an official sport by both organizations is a contributing factor to the growth of its popularity in Kansas City.
Most recreational teams have six players with other teammates rotating in throughout the game. Some competitive play focuses on one-on-one or two-on-two play, but six is the norm. The rules are roughly the same as hard-court volleyball, but most of the recreational teams admit to making up their own rules as they go.
The beach volleyball season runs from March to October. Games are rarely canceled for rain, and starting this winter, neither will some be called for snow. The area’s first domed sand court is scheduled to open at Volleyball Beach at 131st Street and Holmes Road. According to owner Howard Barewin, the Martin City court is the oldest continuously operating sand court in the metro.
“I think people like beach volleyball because everyone gets to hit the ball and contribute to the team’s success or failure, and nobody seems to take it too seriously,” Barewin said, adding that when people take their shoes off, they become a little more relaxed.
“The people who play beach volleyball are the jocks of the Jimmy Buffett world.”
Renee Priemer is a mature, responsible 54-year-old adult with a successful real estate business in Platte County to which she devotes her best energies 24/7. But on a recent Sunday evening, Priemer and a number of her ReMax colleagues were found rolling in the sand, laughing and squealing like children.
Priemer is co-captain of The Closers, a ragtag group of realtors with more spirit than talent in the sport of beach volleyball. They play once a week at the Sands of Burlington Creek, a two-court facility in Kansas City, North, that becomes an ice rink in December. Although she enjoys Jimmy Buffett’s music, Priemer doesn’t consider herself a jock in Jimmy Buffett’s world or any other universe.
“We don’t realize how old we are until we start doing something like this after all those years,” said Priemer with a laugh, adding it’s been about 30 years since she last spiked a volleyball. Now, she boasts of being the worst player in the league.
Brenda Vick, the official cheerleader for The Closers, complete with frayed red pom-poms, takes issue with that claim. Her 6-foot-6 husband, Dan, has landed face-first in the sand diving for (and missing) a ball as often as any of his teammates, who range in age from their 20s to their 60s.
“We all spend most of our days showing houses or with our faces stuck in a computer, so this is a great opportunity to have some fun and build as a team,” Vick said. “When the volleyball season ends, we may take up another sport.”
Year-round activity is what brought Sofia Chavez-Barroso of Kansas City, Kan., to join a team organized by the Young Latino Professionals. A 27-year-old project manager for Barkley Inc., Chavez-Barroso has played kickball and other sports with the group but doesn’t “have a clue why I thought I should do this.”
“I’m really on the team for moral support because I’m the worst player,” she said, noting that she has special dispensation to serve the ball with her foot rather than her hands. “It’s the only way I can get it across the net.”
This is the first year Young Latino Professionals has had a beach volleyball team, and it’s going down in the books as a losing season. But that won’t stop Chavez-Barroso and her colleagues from trying it again.
“We’ve learned a lot about each other’s strengths, and we’ve had a lot of fun,” she said. “And having fun is the only reason I do this.”
Fun appears to be the overriding factor for anyone who plays on a beach volleyball team, but the low cost is another factor, according to Tim McCormick, now of Omaha, Neb., who helped build what he says was the first sand court in Kansas City in 1991. No longer in existence, it was operated next to a restaurant/bar in Gladstone called Feathers. McCormick went on to become a partner in opening Volleyball Beach in Martin City a few years later.
“The players have no big investment in equipment like they do for hockey and some sports, so that’s part of the appeal for people getting started,” McCormick said.
Depending on the number of players on a team, the cost is often about $6 per game per player. Many teams don’t even have matching T-shirts. However, some players choose to invest in sand socks to protect their feet from hot sand or protect a fresh pedicure. They cost about $15 a pair, depending on style.
“Most players have a chance to hit the ball and participate, but because there are so many plays during a match, if you mess one up, you don’t need to feel bad that you lost the game for your team,” McCormick said. “People are really low-key about it all and are out there just to have some fun and get some exercise.”
Josh Luea agrees. He’s the manager at Shawnee Mission Beach Volleyball, and he has overseen 700 teams this summer.
“We rely on the teams to call their own game, and we rarely have any problems or disputes to settle,” Luea said. “There’s not as much physical contact with the opposing team as there is in some sports, like basketball, so we don’t have many altercations at all.”
Some say that the beach scene and vacationlike atmosphere contributes to that easygoing attitude among beach volleyball players. At least Ruthann Airy of Olathe thinks so.
“My family has played when we are on vacation in Fort Walton Beach (Florida) and at Tan-Tar-A (Lake of the Ozarks), and now we are playing here,” said Airy, a mother of two. “It’s very much a family activity, and that’s important when you have teenagers, finding something to share.”
The Airys’ subdivision, Foxfield Village in Olathe, is one of a handful of neighborhoods in the area that has sand volleyball courts as an amenity, which the Airy family takes advantage of frequently with neighbors and friends.
Stone Post Ranch is an Overland Park apartment complex that bills itself as “resort-style living” for its nearly 2,000 residents. And any good resort has to have a beach volleyball court. April Naster is the “resort’s” concierge, who coordinates a number of parties and activities for the residents.
“It’s not something everyone wants because they tend to think you have to be a great athlete or something to play sand volleyball, but that’s not the story at all,” Naster said. “We have a lot of young, single, 20-something professionals who take advantage of the facility, but it’s here for everyone to enjoy.”
Case in point: Veronica Sutton, 55, who is a relatively new resident of Stone Post Ranch. Naster encouraged her to come to a game and see what it was all about. Although Sutton refused to take her shoes off, she ended up on a team with a number of much younger, much more athletic players.
“They were all so much fun and always gave me a second chance when my serve didn’t make it across the net,” said Sutton, who had not played volleyball since high school. “My arms had to remember which way to go and I got hit in the face twice, but it didn’t really hurt. It was just so much fun.”
Fewer injuries are another appealing factor in the popularity of beach volleyball. Tom Francis, 48, of Kansas City, Kan., has played beach volleyball for more than 15 years. He has two bad knees and prefers it to other sports because of the minimal impact on his joints.
“Dropping to your knees to make a play in the sand is so much easier on your body that slamming into a hard court or the grass,” Francis said. “And if you have enough people on your team, you can rotate out as often as you need to for a breather or to rest a tender body part.”
Priemer agrees. She wears a brace on her wrist, thanks to a nasty fall on the ice last winter, but so far, playing volleyball once a week has not caused further pain or injury at all. And despite her claims of being the worst player ever in the history of the game, and their team finishing in the bottom of the teams on the Sands of Burlington Creek tournament, The Closers have improved steadily all summer and get quite a few good volleys, spikes and serves in at each game.
“We’ve had fun,” she said. “We’ve really had a lot of fun.”
Want to join?
▪ Young Latino Professionals
▪ Live KC
A group dedicated to making Kansas City a fun place for millennials has a number of sports leagues, including beach volleyball.
▪ Heart of America Volleyball
▪ Kansas City Parks and Recreation
At this point, the department does not coordinate leagues but does manage two courts and measures interest from area residents. Register your interest.
▪ Start your own team.
At work, church, school, an apartment complex, your favorite restaurant or bar — wherever. Talk it up with those you interact with. All you need is five other people for a team. Then visit one of the area sand courts and take your shoes off.
Since we don’t have an ocean in Kansas City to provide us the sand necessary for a thriving beach volleyball culture, we have to rely on the rivers. As it turns out, the sand from the Missouri River, which is heavy with a bluish-tinted mineral call lignite, is not good for sporting activities. The fast current of the river creates jagged, abrasive sand that is better for construction than for bare feet. And who wants to play in blue sand?
The Kansas River and its slower current generate a more foot-friendly sand with rounder granules than the Missouri River, according to Dan Hays, a sales manager at Kaw Valley Companies. His company provides most of the sand for volleyball courts in this area. And it’s the right color — looking the way sand should look.
“I would say our business for sand courts has easily grown by 50 percent or more in the past five years,” Hays said. His wife, Andrea, plays on a local team.
Most courts have a minimum sand base of 2 feet, but some have as much as 4 feet, according to Hays. When bidding a job, he estimates 500 tons of sand per court, or about 21 tractor-trailer loads.