Match Point

After rebuilding UNCW’s volleyball team, Amy Bambenek tackles the sand

AMY BAMBENEK has been the head indoor volleyball coach at the University of North Carolina Wilmington for the past seven years. This spring, however, she became a new type of coach.

At the beginning of 2015, Bambenek noticed a trend spreading across the country. Beach volleyball was an emerging sport, being officially added to sports programs at over twenty universities and colleges across the country. Eventually, the number of official beach volleyball programs in the United States would reach its current number of fifty-six teams. It was enough to host an official NCAA tournament and championship.

Bambenek immediately realized how beneficial a beach volleyball program could be to UNCW. 

She sat down with UNCW Athletic Director Jimmy Bass to discuss the possibility of adding a beach volleyball team to the list of athletic programs at UNCW. Bambenek recalls Bass being a little skeptical at first.

With three successful indoor volleyball seasons under Bambenek’s belt and the growing number of beach volleyball programs springing up around the country, she continued trying to convince Bass that it was a good idea to bring a beach volleyball squad to UNCW. She pointed out that Wilmington was a perfect location for a beach volleyball team, with many sand courts around the area. She also argued that the beach squad would only help the indoor team’s recruiting and overall skills.

This spring has been the first official season for the beach volleyball program at UNCW, making the school the first NCAA Division I institution in North Carolina to offer the sport.

It was added after Bass deemed it a good fit for the school and to comply with Title IX rules. The addition of the new sport will give UNCW nineteen sports and represents the newest addition to the school’s sports portfolio since women’s soccer came on board in 1994, according to the UNCW Athletics website.

After gaining approval at the beginning of the fall indoor volleyball season, Bambenek asked all the indoor players if they would consider being dual sport athletes, playing on the indoor team in the fall and the beach team in the spring. All but one of the current players had little experience with beach volleyball. According to Bambenek, they caught on quickly.

Since Bambenek was mostly experienced with indoor volleyball, having only played a little bit of beach volleyball for fun in college and watching it on television, she asked for an assistant coach. That coach came in the form of David Fischer.

Fisher brought in a ton of beach volleyball experience. He was the head beach volleyball coach at University of Louisiana at Monroe for multiple seasons, and he played professionally in the Association of Volleyball Professionals for almost fifteen years, according to Bambenek.

Both the indoor and beach volleyball programs at UNCW have enjoyed successful seasons this year, but that hasn’t always been the case, Bambenek said.

The UNCW indoor volleyball team trailed off in the late ’90s, with the team record dropping significantly. The program needed a new direction.

Bambenek brought that much-needed overhaul to the program when she arrived seven years ago. Prior to that she had coached indoor volleyball at George Washington University and Florida State University.  

To begin the overhaul, Bambenek changed recruiting methods and began to rebuild the indoor team entirely. In the past three years, the indoor program has begun to find success again. In the 2015 fall season, the UNCW indoor volleyball team won the Colonial Athletic Conference championship for the first time and, in another first, made it to the NCAA tournament. The success the indoor team started to find over the past three seasons was one of the big factors that lead to Bass giving the beach volleyball program the go ahead.

For the program’s first-ever season, the UNCW beach volleyball program has enjoyed a fair amount of success. With a record of eight wins and tweleve losses, and having played in multiple tournaments, the beach team is gaining skill and experience at a rapid rate, Bambenek said.

“It’s a totally different game than indoor – from the strategy, technique, and mobility, to the overall physicality of the game,” she said.

Two pairs from the UNCW beach squad played against Georgia State University in March, and they earned a notable victory over a ranked team. Though they lost the matchup overall, UNCW beat a nationally ranked Georgia State (which was ranked eighth in the nation at the time) in one of the games.

On the weekend of Apr. 1, the beach volleyball team held their one and only home tournament this season at Dig & Dive on Lancelot Lane in Wilmington. The team beat all three opponents on Saturday, beating Stevenson, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina. Sunday was a pairs tournament, with some pairs taking victories and some taking losses.

On Apr. 9 and 10 the UNCW beach volleyball team traveled to Siesta Key, Florida, to take on Florida Atlantic University, ULM and Florida State. They were victorious over ULM, but the team couldn’t edge out Florida Atlantic or Florida State. The team has three more matches at the Palmetto Invitational in Columbia, South Carolina, on April 16 and 17.

The team and Bambenek already is look ahead to their second season.

As the beach and indoor volleyball teams continue to strengthen one another, Bambenek is confident the two programs will continue to get better.

“We can actually say we’ve established a program,” she said. “When you can consistently stay at a high level you’ve done that. I think we’ll be just as strong next year.”

 

To view more of photographer Chris Brehmer's work, go to www.chrisbrehmerphotography.com.