Sand volleyball isn’t just a game to Tempe resident Diana McNaughton.
"It’s our social event of the week," said McNaughton, 46, who plays in an intermediate-competitive league formed by local volleyball enthusiast Ric Cromwell.
Cromwell, 59, has done so well at organizing the sport in the area that the City of Tempe Parks and Recreation has hired him to run its sand volleyball leagues this summer through his company, Sand Sports. The four-division Tempe leagues (ranging from competitive to recreational) will begin at Kiwanis Park beginning in early June and running through August. The City of Mesa has leagues at the Gene Autry Sports Complex and the City of Scottsdale has leagues at Scottsdale Ranch Park. Gilbert also offers league play.
Cromwell claims to be the largest independent provider of outdoor volleyball activities in the Southwest, with more than 500 people playing in leagues that last about two months. Sand Sports leagues play throughout the year at Pranksters II in Scottsdale, Minderbinders in Tempe and at the Pera Club, a park for Salt River Project employees in Scottsdale that opens its courts to the public.
Players range in ages from 21 to 50. There is no age limit, but players under the age of 18 have to have parents sign for them to play.
Players in Sand Sports leagues can play in a four-player league or a six-player league that is usually co-ed. Mesa offers a two-player league, but its existence is dependent on how many teams sign up.
The City of Mesa Parks and Recreation has an interesting twist at the Gene Autry Sport Complex. Players can plunk down $2 and play each Wednesday and Sunday. On Mondays, competitive players can play two-on-two for the same price.
Cromwell currently officiates the sport as he waits for his knee injury to heal. He’s a late bloomer, having first played volleyball at 45.
"I was just looking for something to do," Cromwell said. "Some athletic activity — especially volleyball — can be very social. My intent was to find some social activity that is not very expensive. We supply the balls and the fields. All they have to do is show up."
Cost for the leagues run from $160 to $185. "It gets me out of the house," said Mike Olexa, 34. "It’s good exercise. I’ve met a lot of people. As busy as we get — we’re all working professionals — it’s a good way to see each other and catch up on what’s going on."
Olexa plays on a team called Injured Reserve.
"We’re all in our 30s and we all have something sore on us," he said.
McNaughton’s team, which has gone by various names over the year, puts a bit more effort into the sport.
"We sometimes meet for cocktails before we play," she said. "We don’t drink too many. It’s not like we’re slamming shots or anything like that. We go out to eat before games. Sometime we arrange barbecues with the teams we’re getting ready to play. If you’re a single person and you know nobody and you’re somewhat athletic, it’s a great thing to get involved with. You automatically make new friends."
"We get (new-in-town calls) all the time," Cromwell said. "They usually call us and say they played in Chicago or California or somewhere and we say, ‘Hey, no problem.’
“We can put them on a team. Sometimes I create a team from just a group of individuals. Some of these people have played in my league for three years. They’ve met other people and then formed their own team, so there you go."