AS if he were about to propose, Brian Hahs, an accountant from Wantagh, 35, dropped to one knee on the sand. Carolyn Barton, 36, an audiologist from Wantagh, watched Mr. Hahs stretch out his arms and clasp his hands together. But this is only partly a tale of love on the beach. What made Ms. Barton smile was the wallop Mr. Hahs then gave the volleyball as it arced toward him over the net.
”Really nice,” Ms. Barton, Mr. Hahs’s fiancée, yelled as the rally on court 8 at the beach volleyball stadium at Jones Beach State Park continued and then ended with a spike point for their free agent team. The six players on their side of the net rotated clockwise, sand sifting between their toes.
As the sun dipped on the horizon, it was Ms. Barton’s turn to serve. On the first try, it sailed into the net. ”Nice try, dear,” Mr. Hahs called out. Then, with a bit more oomph, the volleyball whooshed to the other side. Mr. Hahs cast Ms. Barton a loving glance. ”It’s almost like going on vacation playing on the beach,” Mr. Hahs had said earlier, standing on the sideline. ”It’s like another world to get away from my desk, my clients.”
Lured by the surf, the sand, summer, the competition and the cavorting, beach volleyball is booming in popularity on the Island. Four evenings a week since mid-May, 64 teams in the Long Island Volleyball Association, a private league, are playing three games of 21 points each at Jones Beach, competing against different teams each week. In this sandbox for grown-ups, some jiggle between shots to music cranking from loudspeakers. Others check out the social scene, clamoring for mates as well as points.
Just down the shore at Cedar Beach in Babylon, hundreds of players gather on 22 courts, where, on Monday evenings, a disc jockey adds to the beach party atmosphere. The league there is divided into recreational, intermediate and advanced. ”You don’t have to be the greatest volleyball player in the world to play,” said Joseph Strining, the executive director of the league.
Mr. Strining, 39, of Oak Beach was living in Long Beach in 1998 and working as a copy editor when he decided to organize an adult recreational league rather than rely on pickup games with his buddies. That first summer, he organized 28 teams at Cedar Beach. The following year, he leased the former roller-skating rink from the New York State park system at Jones Beach. The concrete was replaced with sand. With lights for night play already in place, the volleyball games could continue on warm summer evenings long after the sun went down. He set up six courts.
”We want to make them feel like they are playing volleyball on a cruise ship,” said Mr. Strining, who now has a staff of 12 to help keep the games running smoothly. ”It’s huge stress relief.” Last year, the roster swelled to 650 teams during two nine-week sessions at both beaches. This summer, with two courts added at Jones Beach, the league has close to 800 teams.
”It’s a very social sport,” Mr. Strining said, recalling how he first noticed the woman who later became his fiancée, Tracy Longo of Seaford, because she was so bubbly on the court. ”It’s one of the few sports where men and women can actually play together and enjoy the game together.” Players range from 18 to their 50’s, with an average age of 27.
Though the league boasted its first wedding last June — Kathy and Curtis Lee of Hicksville even had a wedding cake topper made with beach sand, a homemade volleyball net and ball for their wedding at Larkfield Manor in Northport — the emphasis is on sport, not hooking up. Volleyball on the sand is a workout. Standings are kept, with an additional point going to a team for each victory.
”Come playoff time, everyone is serious,” Mr. Strining said. ”They progress. They become better players.”
But even those not looking for love can be as concerned with socializing as winning. Several teams are sponsored by local companies like NBTY (formerly Nature’s Bounty) and Arrow Electronics; others are groups of friends or free agents.
Members of a team called Lost in Space have been playing together at Jones Beach for the last three summers. After winning all three games during the first of four time slots on a recent evening, they hung around the sidelines, swapping stories and sipping drinks from a cooler. ”It’s an excuse to get together after work and come to the beach,” said Ed Hearn, an engineer from Commack, who plays alongside his wife, Linda, a dental hygienist. ”You don’t get to see everybody all the time. This was convenient.”
Gail Mazzella, 34, of Huntington picked up her husband, Mario, 37, at the Hicksville station from his job as an information technology director in Manhattan to join their friends on the sand. Even after a bad day at the office, it was worth the trek. ”By the time I get here, I am in such a different mood,” said Ms. Mazzella, who works as an information technology director in Hauppauge. ”It’s a good time.”
For the last four years, Mike Wagner, 48, of Ronkonkoma has considered volleyball a relaxing break after putting in a full day as a real estate broker in Bellmore. ”I’m not a baker,” Mr. Wagner said. ”To be on the beach I have to be able to do something or I can’t go. This is ideal.”
Like many players, after the game Mr. Hahs and Ms. Barton stroll the boardwalk, go to the beach and sometimes stop for ice cream. Though they didn’t meet on the court, playing beach volleyball together, they agreed, helped nurture their relationship. ”We got to know each other and got to see each other in this kind of nature and realized that we are the same,” Ms. Barton said.
Because of the surge in popularity, Mr. Strining said, he plans to take his volleyball league indoors next winter to a central Long Island location, where he plans to create a beach with a roof on top.
Melody Millando, 28, a doctoral student in clinical psychology from Bethpage, plays volleyball year round but prefers the sand. ”There is more freedom to go after the ball,” Ms. Millando said. ”Here we can attack the ball, go after the ball. You can dive without worrying about scraping the knees. I have more injuries indoors than outdoors.”
On hot summer days, Theresa Bevilacqua, 23, a student from Farmingdale, and buddies from her high school days bask in the sun at Jones Beach. Come evening, the team that calls itself X-treme puts on T-shirts marked ”A Volleyball Life. (Nothing else matters.)” and head for the sand courts. Then the spiking and passing in their intermediate-level volleyball league begins.
Ms. Bevilacqua summed up the scene. ”I’ve always liked volleyball,” she said. ”It’s a great ending to a good day at the beach.” ¦