If you build it … Mesquite Beach, the court of dreams
March 12, 2019 by Jason Cake, Arizona State University
The East Valley lies on the northeastern edge of the picturesque Sonoran Desert. The arid climate is better known for the blazing Arizona sun, majestic saguaro cactus and desert landscape than the pristine coastal beach volleyball courts seen on the shores of Southern California and Hawaii.
However, nestled in the heart of Chandler, there is a beach that features four professional-grade volleyball courts with authentic coastal beach sand.
Mesquite Beach is not a mirage. Nor is this a knockoff of an 80s feel-good movie starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones. The beautifully manicured beach volleyball courts are the realization of a dream.
Allen Alexander, the head coach of Chandler High's beach volleyball team, is conducting practice at Chuparosa Park fresh off the Wolves victory against Maricopa (5-0) the night before.
"It's always better after a win," says Alexander.
There is a noticeable pep in his step, and it is apparent he is happier with the sand beneath his feet and the sounds of volleyball in the air.
Alexander has become a significant figure in the Valley's beach volleyball community over the last 11 years helping grow the sport he loves.
However, his journey begins in a peculiar place.
Alexander grew up in Milwaukee, Wisc., where average winter temperatures top out in the low 30s. Not the ideal location for a future beach volleyball enthusiast.
"In Milwaukee, it was just me and a couple of Hawaiian guys who were playing in the snow," says Alexander. "We literally edged out the lines and played in the snow."
When the snow melted, Alexander and his friends took their skills to Bradford Beach, a popular summer destination on Lake Michigan, and a stop on the AVP tour.
He was instantly hooked.
"It's unlike baseball or football where it is difficult to get close to the pros," says Alexander. "We're talking about the best of the best, and you're interacting with them."
Alexander moved to the Valley in 1992 for college, but he admits a contributing factor was the lure of playing beach volleyball year-round.
Alexander meticulously studies his clipboard, calling out the next set of player matches and annotating scores to keep practice moving in an orderly fashion. He mentions he would like to be working on the fundamentals, but his players love to play, and after a win, he wants to reward their efforts.
Beach volleyball remained an obscure sport for most of the country until the 1990s, gaining national attention when it became an official Olympic event in 1996. Six gold medals by the United States' men and women teams from 1996-2012, including three consecutive gold medals by the duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, solidified the sport into the national consciousness.
It was during this time when an older and established Alexander made the leap with his wife, Heather, from beach volleyball enthusiasts to owners and operators of their own league.
Frustrated with the status of the adult beach volleyball scene, Alexander believed they could create an innovative and fun league. In 2007 they formed The Sand Club and started a Tuesday evening adult league with eight teams and 32 players.
"My wife is in web design, and I was in marketing, so between the two of us we were really able to make the website and everything cool," says Alexander. "We made the league cool."
Using personal resources, and a love of the game, they took a risk to create a league that would excite the community.
Their gamble paid off.
The Sand Club exploded from a weekly adult league to operating 16 divisional leagues with over 500 players, generating corporate sponsorships that allowed the club to expand.
In 2009, Alexander began youth training and hosting youth tournaments for players who failed to make their indoor high school or club teams. The Starter Club—and later The Sand Academy—provided kids a place to continue to work on volleyball skills and learn the beach game. Today, The Sand Club is the only venue in the Valley hosting sanctioned youth volleyball tournaments through the AAU, USA Volleyball and AVP providing teams with bids to go to nationals.
Mikaila Williams is a senior at Chandler High and a member of Alexander's high school and club beach teams. Alexander has coached Williams for the past four years introducing her to competitive beach volleyball through his Starter Club and Sand Academy.
“I appreciate the Sand Academy because it’s what led me to fall in love with beach [volleyball],” says Williams. “[Alexander] helped my game, incorporating things the pros do and increasing my overall knowledge of the game.”
Williams has committed to play indoor volleyball at South Mountain Community College after graduation, but she plans to return to beach volleyball when her indoor college playing days are over.
Mesquite Beach became a reality in April 2015, when Alexander and his wife used their life savings to create their dream courts, giving back to the community they cherish.
Eric Hodgson is the Director of Outreach for the Arizona Region of USA Volleyball, who helped facilitate Arizona becoming the first state to offer beach volleyball as an official high school sport, and an ardent supporter of Alexander. He considers Alexander a great resource for the progression of beach volleyball in the East Valley, especially for the youth.
"[Alexander] has gotten a lot of young people to play and brought in a lot of visibility to the sport,” said Hodgson.
Hodgson believes Alexander is just one of those people whose love for the game transcends everything else and whose focus is always about his players.
A gentle breeze blows through the trees, cooled by the mist of a unique sprinkler system whose purpose is not to water the lawn but cool down the sand. In the Valley, hot sand is a hazard for beach volleyball players, even during the temperate spring months. Practice is nearly over, and Alexander has returned his full attention back to his players as the afternoon sun drifts toward the horizon.