Emily Napoli was a budding star on the youth volleyball circuit two years ago when on a whim she and a club teammate signed up for a beach volleyball tournament.
“We knew how to play volleyball, but not necessarily beach,” Napoli said. “I didn’t even know how the format worked.”
They figured it out quick. Napoli and Bella Parise qualified for a Junior Olympics event out of the tournament.
Napoli found a new calling in the process.
The incoming Cathedral Catholic junior, who’s already accepted a sand volleyball scholarship from Texas Christian University, has given up indoor volleyball, focusing entirely on the beach game – something that would have been unheard of just a half dozen years ago.
Napoli is among a handful of area players who later this month will compete in one of the sports most prestigious high school and collegiate showcase events. The inaugural Queen of the Beach Invitational will be held June 25-26 at Hermosa Beach.
Cathedral Catholic’s Sarah Blacker, and Wave club members Hayley Gibson (Bishop’s) and Kalee Graff (Carlsbad) are among 48 of the nation’s top high school players who’ll compete in the tournament. Another 48 players will compete on the collegiate circuit.
“I know the competition is going to be really good,” Napoli said. “It’s an honor to be part of it.”
Tournament host Eric Fonoimoana , an Olympic gold medalist, said in a statement that the tournament’s purpose is to showcase the players who’ve helped make beach volleyball the fastest growing sport for female athletes, noting that approximately 60 colleges will field teams this year. The NCAA will hold its first national championship this year.
“I’ve always been a big supporter of helping the sport grow, and I’m very excited about bringing together the best competition in one place to highlight the top competitors during the Queen of the Beach Invitational,” Fonoimoana said.
“The high school players we’ll see on the court will become the stars of the college game in the coming years, and the college players at our tournament very well could be representing the United States in the 2020 or 2024 Olympics.”
Napoli, who transferred to Cathedral from Pacific Ridge before her sophomore year, acknowledged that forgoing an indoor career at one of the state’s elite programs wasn’t easy. But she said the Dons are loaded at her outside hitter position, which meant she wasn’t indispensable.
She prefers the atmosphere surrounding the beach game.
“There’s so much pressure on the court and all your teammates are just always on you,” Napoli said of the indoor game.
“I just feel like beach (volleyball) is a lot more ‘go with the flow.’ You kind of do everything yourself; you’re kind of your own coach. It’s you and your teammate and you definitely have to have that mental connection and friendship to succeed.
“Beach works a lot more for me.”
Napoli believes the beach game better fits her playing style anyway, noting that she no longer has to contend with taller players hanging out in front of the net. The beach game is an equalizer for height, rewarding smaller more athletic players.
A vocal leader throughout her career, Napoli acknowledged that it became difficult to rally her teammates when taller opponents who clogged the middle of the court made it almost impossible for her to make the impact she could earlier in her career.
“As I got older I couldn’t always do well because there were these 6-foot-4 blockers out there and I’m 5-7 ½, so it was frustrating when I’d be like ‘OK let’s go team’ and I couldn’t put the ball away myself.”
These days, she’s putting the ball away just fine on the beach circuit. Napoli and partner Hannah Martin, a Canyon Crest Academy standout, emerged as an elite team in their age group, winning an AAU under-15 tournament last summer.
Napoli believes the beach game is easier on her joints and on balance easier on her body than the indoor game despite some health risks associated with prolonged sun exposure.
Perhaps the most important difference, however, is the fun factor.
“I have a blast,” Napoli said of beach volleyball.
“Then again you can’t go wrong, you’re on the beach. In indoor (volleyball) you’re stuck inside. There’s lights, there’s whistles, angry parents. In beach (volleyball) parents can’t even say anything so they’re ticked off. It’s like ‘You know what? This is great, no coaches yelling at me. It’s very nice.”