April 26, 2012
Who: Heather Thomas and Kirsten Gallagher
What: Collegiate Sand Volleyball Pairs Championship
When: Friday (pool play), Sunday (single-elimination championship bracket)
Where: Gulf Shores, Ala. (public beach in front of "The Hangout" restaurant)
Friday's Pool Play Schedule (times Central and approximate):
12 p.m. vs. Kirby Burnham and Kelly Irvin (USC)
1 p.m. vs. Caitlin Racich and Summer Ross (Pepperdine)
3 p.m. vs. Joanne Marras Tate and Alessia Pizzoccheri (Florida Atlantic)
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Heather Thomas and Kirsten Gallagher didn't come to UAB with dreams of competing for a sand volleyball national championship.
They didn't even know such a thing would exist when they set foot on campus together in the fall of 2008. But starting Friday in Gulf Shores, Ala., that's exactly what they'll be playing for, and they couldn't be more eager for the opportunity.
Thomas and Gallagher will join 15 other tandems from across the country in the first-ever Collegiate Sand Volleyball Pairs Championship sponsored by the American Volleyball Coaches Association of America (AVCA).
"I had no idea coming here to play volleyball that UAB would start a sand volleyball team," Gallagher said. "We got into the tournament, and that's an exciting step. I never would have thought we would have been here, but we made it."
One of three pairs to occupy the top spot in the UAB lineup at some point this season, Thomas and Gallagher played every match together.
The duo was one of eight at-large selections into the pairs championship, and those eight will join eight pairs receiving automatic bids, two each from the four teams in this weekend's team national championship -- Pepperdine, Florida State, Long Beach State and College of Charleston.
"It's exciting," Thomas said, "especially because I'm a senior. It's my last year to play volleyball as a college athlete. We weren't really sure if we were going to get selected because we moved around a lot (in the lineup), but our record was really steady."
Learning on the fly in the inaugural season of sand volleyball at the college level, it didn't take long for Thomas and Gallagher to gel. Not only have they been teammates on UAB's indoor team for four years, but they've also been roommates throughout college.
That familiarity with one another and their individual skill sets that complement each other have been keys to their success. The 5-foot-7 Thomas is a master of ball control, while the 6-foot-2 Gallagher is a versatile player whose size can both help her teammate and create problems for opponents.
"We have good chemistry together," Gallagher said. "(In the sand game), once you touch the ball, you know it's her ball. There are only two of you, so you have to trust her to run that down, get it and put it somewhere where you can be effective.
"We've lived together for four years, we know each other, and we know how we like to play. We can fight like sisters in the sand, but we connect well."
When they take the court Friday for the round-robin portion of the pairs championship, it will be their second experience in a national tournament. Both players were part of UAB's NCAA tournament indoor team in 2008 when Thomas was a key reserve defensive specialist and Gallagher was redshirting.
Thomas went on to become the most decorated libero in UAB history as an all-conference player with a school-record 2,131 career digs, the fourth-most ever in Conference USA. Gallagher, now a redshirt junior, has been a key contributor at middle blocker on the indoor team, averaging 1.02 blocks per set and connecting for a .278 attack percentage last fall.
"These two girls are pretty special to our program because both of them were here the last time we went to the national tournament in indoor," UAB sand volleyball coach Hal Messersmith said.
"Kirsten has done everything we've asked her for four years. She came from Auburn (Ala.) and wasn't highly recruited. She's just done a fantastic job and is one of the nicest people I've ever met. Heather was highly recruited, and she has been everything we wanted out of a libero and everything we wanted out of a person. Both of them are going to be really successful in life, and I'm glad those two got chosen."
This spring, both players have been a part of history with the debut of sand volleyball, which was designated as an emerging sport by the NCAA in 2011. It must reach the minimum of 40 competing universities (there were 16 at the start of this season) before it becomes an NCAA Championship sport. Until then, the championship event is governed by the AVCA.
UAB's pair received an invite this year after posting a 6-4 record in dual matches with two of its losses coming to the top-seeded team in this week's tournament -- Florida State's Brittany Tiegs and Aurora Newgard. Thomas and Gallagher lost to the FSU pair in both Birmingham and Tallahassee but split sets with the same duo in a flighted tournament at North Florida.
Thomas and Gallagher suffered another one of their losses to a team in their own pool this weekend -- Florida Atlantic's Joanne Marras Tate and Alessia Pizzoccheri. The FAU squad is one of four in the Blazers' pool for Friday's round-robin action.
The UAB team's first match in the second of the four pools is slated to begin around Noon CT against USC's Kirby Burnham and Kelly Irvin with a contest to follow against Pepperdine's Caitlin Racich and Summer Ross before closing the day against the Florida Atlantic duo.
After Friday's play and the team championship event on Saturday, the 16 pairs will be seeded into a single-elimination bracket to be played out on Sunday to determine the national champion pair.
Thomas sees this weekend's action as an exciting way to finish out her four years at UAB, bookending her career with an NCAA tournament trip as a freshman and the sand volleyball national championships as a senior.
"I wanted to go to the NCAA tournament again in court (volleyball), but I didn't get that chance," Thomas said. "So I am really grateful for getting a chance to go to the national tournament for sand volleyball. I love the sand game, and I love playing with Kirsten."