Boise, Idaho, is a city in a landlocked northern state, where the average low temperature dips below freezing in four of the eight months that make up the school year at Boise State University. When the Broncos’ beach volleyball team begins playing competitive matches in late February, there’s a chance there will still be snow on the ground.
Which begs the question: How does one play beach volleyball in Boise?
Maya Watkins is uniquely positioned to answer that question.
“Sand is sand, no matter where you are, even through the winters here where it does snow,” said the Boise State junior, who’s a Glacier Peak High School graduate and a member of the Broncos’ beach volleyball team. “If we can rake the snow off the courts we’ll play, if it’s not totally freezing cold.”
It’s an unconventional way to play the sport, but Watkins’ path has been anything but conventional. Watkins has found a way to make a career out of beach volleyball, despite routing through meteorically-challenged locations like Snohomish and Boise.
Watkins first discovered beach volleyball the summer before her freshman year at Glacier Peak when, on a whim, she and classmate Kelly Wygant decided to enter a beach volleyball tournament at Bottega Fitness Park in Snohomish.
“I later found out it was a bid tournament to go to nationals in Hermosa Beach, California,” Watkins said. “Somehow we ended up miraculously winning it, and I decided with my family and partner to make the trip to see what the sport was really like — and when we got there we got our butts whooped. But I fell in love with the sport after that California trip and decided that was what I wanted to focus on.”
Watkins was drawn to the sport because it’s two-on-two, where indoor volleyball is six-on-six. Therefore, beach players are more involved in every point than their indoor counterparts, and they have to have a greater diversity of skills. That suits the 5-foot-9 Watkins.
But how does one focus on a sport that is nearly inaccessible where one lives? Watkins spent several days a week commuting to south Seattle to train with a small group of girls at Sandbox Sports, which at the time was the only indoor beach volleyball facility in the area. In the summers she traveled to Southern California for tournaments, sometimes spending weeks at a time away from home. At one point Watkins was ranked by AVP as the No. 1 under-18 player in the Puget Sound Region and No. 4 in the Pacific Zone.
That caught the attention of Boise State, which made Watkins part of the first ever beach volleyball-specific recruiting class in school history. Prior to that the beach volleyball team was comprised of players from the indoor team. Now just six of the 17 players on the beach roster are on the indoor team.
But how does Boise State manage to field a beach volleyball team? After all, according to the NCAA there are only six Division I schools in the Northwest that have beach volleyball teams, and just about all the schools are located in the south where the weather is friendlier. In contrast, Boise, according to weather-us.com, averages 19.4 days and 19.2 inches of snow a year. And the Broncos have no indoor beach volleyball facilities.
So sometimes that means practicing in the snow.
“It’s chilly for sure,” Watkins said about snow practices. “We don’t do it very often, but we’ve had a few times when it’s been tolerable and we were able to do it. But we wear leggings, then wear sweats over our leggings. We’ll put on thermal turtlenecks with long sleeves, then a sweatshirt over that. Then we wear our sand socks (typically used to protect beach volleyball players’ feet from scorching-hot sand) to keep our toes warm and a headband over our ears. And you get warmer moving around.
“It gives us an advantage over other teams when we do travel and it’s not great weather,” Watkins added. “Most teams are used to the sunshine, but spring weather is unpredictable. You get rain, you get cold, you get wind.”
Last year Watkins paired with Kenna Hanses to form Boise State’s No. 5 pair, with the duo going 10-8 in its matches. Watkins and Hanses were set to reprise their pairing this year when Boise State’s season was suspended indefinitely as part of the efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. Hanses is a senior.
“It’s devastating,” Watkins said of the suspension of the season. “My heart goes out to everyone, mostly our seniors in spring sports, and even winter sports finishing up.”
Watkins is a junior, which means she’ll get another shot next year. And she’ll just be thrilled to continue playing beach volleyball, even in a location that’s not ideally suited for the sport.
“There’s going to be people who play beach volleyball and not want to be in cold winter weather half the year, and that’s understandable,” Watkins said. “But I think anyone who has a passion for the sport wants to play, no matter where they are.”
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