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Sarah Agnew Finds Her Beach in Downtown Atlanta

 

Beaches, bathing suits, palm trees and cheering crowds: Thanks to the Summer Olympics and the success of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Tour, it doesn’t take long for the words “sand volleyball” to conjure up some very specific images in people’s minds.

At Georgia State, on the other hand, you can swap out the first two items on that list with car horns and freight trains rumbling 10 feet over the heads of the players. But Honors College Ambassador Sarah Agnew and her fellow sand volleyball players have embraced their non-traditional environment.

“Sometimes we’ll wave at the train conductors and get them to blow their horns while we’re practicing,” the rising junior says with a smile. “It’s not something that people expect, but it’s really neat being able to integrate the city feel with the beach feel. Because when we’re practicing on the courts, we really don’t feel like we’re in the city. Sure, we wave at the passing trains and constantly hear car horns and sirens while we’re practicing, but we’ve worked so hard to create a great facility that it doesn’t feel out of place. I really have enjoyed being in the middle of the city but at the same time having the sanctuary of being in the sand.”

The cars, trains and skyscrapers haven’t made the team any less competitive, either. This past season — only the fourth for Georgia State’s fledgling program — the sand volleyballers went 18-3 and, with a No. 7 national ranking, punched their first-ever ticket to the national championships.

Falling in Love with ‘the Hardest Thing I Had Ever Done’

Playing sand volleyball in any environment wasn’t something Agnew spent much time picturing while attending high school in suburban Dallas, Texas. She played on her school’s indoor volleyball team, but was focused primarily on track. Then a sand volleyball program for juniors opened up at some courts behind a restaurant in her neighborhood, and she decided to give it a try.

In the beginning, at least, it wasn’t easy. “There’s definitely an adjustment period moving from indoor to sand,” she says. “We all joke about having our ‘sand legs,’ which means that after spending even a week or two out of the sand, your first few days back are going to feel really funny. So you can imagine how challenging it is to start from scratch. But specializing in only sand, rather than juggling both indoor and outdoor as many juniors do, was very helpful.”

But that challenge didn’t deter her — it did the exact opposite. “Sand volleyball was the hardest thing I had ever done, so I knew it was the sport for me,” she says.

As Agnew traveled to tournaments in California with the rest of her juniors club, she started to learn more about both the sport and the culture surrounding it, and started to “fall in love” with both. Around that same time, the NCAA began sponsoring sand volleyball as a Division I sport, and Agnew’s horizons suddenly got much broader.

“I crossed paths with a few college coaches at those tournaments, trying to get on their radar — I just wanted to see what would happen,” she says. “And that’s when I decided to transition from track to really focusing on beach volleyball.”

A Growing Cheering Section

Georgia State’s sand volleyball program had only a single season under its belt when Agnew first came to Atlanta to check out the university. But she was looking for more than stuffed trophy cases or record books.

“The program seemed phenomenal when I came. It just seemed like the right fit for me,” she says. “It was very structured, but at the same time it was a lot about personal accountability, which is something that I’ve always strived to embrace in my life. I got to talk to our head coach, Beth Van Fleet, and her goals for the program were inspiring. Her investment in the future of our sport was exactly what I was looking for.

“This is a very individual sport, it’s very self-driven, because you don’t have a coach coaching you during the game. This individualistic nature is very unique to our sport, because it’s completely up to you and your partner to make in-game adjustments and find ways to win. It facilitates quick, abstract, independent thinking. But even though we only compete as pairs, our team does a great job of remaining connected as a whole team. Everyone is incredibly supportive of each other on and off the court. We all push each other to be better, and we all hold everyone to very high expectations. I think that’s pretty unique to our team here at GSU — it’s hard to find a balance between the individual side of the sport and the team aspect. But it’s really cool to integrate the two, because even though you’re on the court with only one other person, you always feel like you’re competing for something greater than that. You’re representing your entire program, and there’s no better feeling than that.”

In collegiate sand volleyball matches, each team fields five seeded pairs, with the 1 seed playing the 1 seed, the 2s against the 2s, and so on. Whoever wins each matchup gets a point, and the team with the most points out of five gets the overall win. Players tend to stick with the same partners most of the year, Agnew says, which helped her build a “really special chemistry” with junior Kate Rawls this past season.

But she feels like she’s built some chemistry with the school, too. “Everybody on campus is embracing the sport so well,” she says. “It’s been fun being here for two years now and just watching everybody start to grasp the sport and fall in love with it as we have. Students will ask us how our tournaments have gone, when a few years ago they didn’t even really know that we had a team. The faculty and students have been such phenomenal supporters, and they’re a big reason that our sport is so enjoyable.”

Leading the Way On and Off the Sand

Agnew is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in exercise science at the College of Education, with an eye toward eventually pursuing a master’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics. Yet it was a class in a completely different field that made her realized she’d found an academic fit at Georgia State in addition to an athletic one.

“My freshman year, I took an honors business class with Professor Nancy Mansfield,” she remembers. “The material in that class wasn’t something that I’m particularly interested in, but it still made such a big impact on me. It was my first semester in college, and she was very open to questions from her students and always encouraged class discussions. That was really helpful to experience during my first semester of college, because I learned that it’s not just about sitting and listening to a lecture, but more about really getting a feel for the material. She’s someone that I’ve still connected with after that class.”

That comfort level has made balancing school work with team responsibilities — usually a challenge for any student-athlete — much less of a burden, Agnew says.

“I wouldn’t really say that it’s a challenge, because they’re both things that I love,” she explains. “Sometimes it is a little hard when I don’t have time for some of my hobbies like volunteering — I’ve volunteered with equine therapy organizations, and that’s something I really, really enjoy — because our schedule is completely booked for the week.

“But it’s still not what I would call a challenge. It’s always something I see as more of an opportunity, because I love spending time with my team and getting reps on the court. The time constraints really aren’t the challenge, the challenge comes from figuring out how I can serve my team and be a leader off the court as well as on.”

That’s a message Agnew tries to get across to prospective Georgia State students as an Honors College Ambassador. She’s currently the only varsity athlete serving as an Ambassador, but she does mention that many other athletes haven taken on the Honors curriculum. “The time commitment is always something that [visitors]ask about,” she says, “and I think I help them realize that if someone can juggle athletics with the Honors College, it’s really not an overwhelming workload — it’s something that’s manageable and realistic.”

Agnew says she can’t wait to get back to campus this fall. When she does, you’ll find her either in the sand with her teammates or mingling with prospective students in the Honors College. The future looks bright for both: The Honors College continues to flourish, and the sand team looks to earn a second trip to the NCAA National Championship in 2016.

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