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Photos courtesy of Bob Gower.
Volleyball players came from the Birmingham area, as well as many from the Southeast.
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Players compete in two-on-two sand volleyball tournaments held at Veterans Park.
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On any given spring or summer Saturday, the sand volleyball courts at Veterans Park on Valleydale Road are abuzz with activity. Often high school students and youth groups use the three nets for casual play, but when Joe Alaimo and other members of the Birmingham Beach Adult Volleyball Facebook group get out there, it’s an entirely different game.
The competition’s stiffer; the party’s crazier; the relationships are deeper, and the payoff’s bigger. The group generally plays at the “A level,” which means players have considerable experience and knowledge of the game. A long day of outdoor play is almost always followed by an after party at a local restaurant or bar. Many of the group’s members, including Alaimo, are engaged or married to other volleyball players, and each tournament has a total payout of around $1,000.
“Our tournaments have turned into an event,” Alaimo said. “Even if you’re not playing, people go out and watch because it’s a lot of fun.”
Alaimo started playing volleyball in Birmingham through the Hoover Rec Center league in 2005. He played his first beach tournament in 2010 and said he has been hooked ever since. One of the first people he met playing was Lance Woods, a longtime player who coaches Oak Mountain’s high school team and serves as the director of operations for the Birmingham Volleyball Club junior Olympic volleyball program.
At that time, games were sporadic and tournaments were lucky to happen once or twice a summer. In March of 2013 Alaimo started a Facebook group to help organize the hundreds of players in the area. Eventually, he started planning tournaments. Now, there are anywhere from six to ten tournaments from April through September. Each tournament hosts around 100 people in 2 v. 2 sand or 4 v. 4 grass volleyball.
“This has been done a few times, but it’s always gone away after awhile” Lance Woods said of the current volleyball scene. “Joe’s the one pushing this right now, but it’s really hard to find someone special to do this. There’s no money involved, so you just do it for the love of the game.”
Lately, tournaments run by the group have been so successful that they have filled up within 10 minutes of being posted. Players from Nashville, Hunstville, Bilouxi, Atlanta and Montgomery come into town to compete regularly. Lance’s wife, Carly, a fellow sand volleyball player, said even two years ago it was hard to fill a tournament, and now they almost always have to turn people away.
“It’s a lot of word of mouth,” she said. “But for the three courts we have, we’re a major stop for out of towners.”
It costs $25 per person to enter the grass competition and $30 to enter the sand competition. All the money, minus the amount it takes to reserve the courts, becomes prize money for tournament winners. The first tournament of this year was held as a fundraiser to purchase new nets and a new net system for Veterans Park. The tournament raised almost $2,000 that went toward three new net systems that can be adjusted to regulation height for both men and women sand volleyball.
On tournament days, Alaimo said he and his fiancé Jodie get to the court around 6:30 to set up nets, tents and make sure everything is in order for the day. Games start at 9 a.m. and go until anywhere from 7 to 9 in the evening. After games, everyone meets up at whichever restaurant or bar sponsored the tournament.
Tournament mornings aren’t the only time Alaimo and other sand enthusiasts get up early to play. He said he often gets up around 5:30 a.m. to play before work to avoid the crowds that form at the courts in the afternoons.
“I’ll get there at 6, then play from 6 to 8, shower and go to work,” he said. “We do that all the time because in the afternoon, when you’re playing two on two and there’s 30 kids trying to get on a court, you feel bad.”
Many in the group also travel to play in tournaments around the Southeast. One huge tournament, nicknamed Fuds, is held twice a year in Destin, Florida and attracts 300 teams of four players each.
“Lance and I got married the Friday night before the tournament just because all our friends were going to be down there anyway,” Carly Woods said.
For Alaimo and the Woods, the sand volleyball group is about much more than just playing for themselves. It’s about growing the sport in Birmingham, and more importantly, transferring their love for the sport to a new generation of players.
Both couples coach youth volleyball in the area, and said they are excited by how sand volleyball has grown in the area in the last couple of years. It is now a collegiate championship sport; UAB, Spring Hill and Jacksonville State all offer sand volleyball scholarships.
“It’s a trickle down effect,” Carly Woods said. “You get more people knowing and loving the sport and then they want to pass it down. Maybe they have kids or they want to start coaching, and then we get more scholarships for kids in our community to play volleyball in college.”
For Lance Woods, who has been coaching volleyball since the early 1990s and playing for more than 30 years, it’s been most rewarding to see the game and his players grow over the years.
“The best thing about the game is it’s very social,” he said. “Once they get out there, it’s like a drug, they’re hooked and then you start seeing them all around town.”