Solving quadratic equations is no big deal for Sydney Ely.
Graphing parabolas? A piece of cake.
“Math comes easier to me than most other subjects,” the incoming Canyon Crest Academy junior said.
“I like solving problems.”
Giving up a sport she’s excelled at since playing on the elite club volleyball circuit for years, on the other hand, was tough.
The 5-foot-11 outside hitter/opposite recently joined a growing number of prep standouts who’ve decided to abandon the indoor game in favor of the beach.
Beach volleyball is an officially sanctioned NCAA sport, but not yet by the San Diego Section and CIF.
Ely is being recruited by several Division I programs.
“Choosing beach over indoor was a tough decision because I’ve been playing indoor for so long and it was a pretty drastic change for me,” Ely said.
Ely served notice when she earned a starting spot on the varsity at perennial power CCA as a freshman.
“She definitely had a skillset, and already being her size and strength, she was able to contribute right away,” Ravens coach Ariel Haas said.
Ely was named to the prestigious Prep Volleyball Frosh59! and Soph79! lists.
She would be a strong Division I indoor volleyball scholarship candidate in Haas’ estimation.
Ely is a talented powerful player with excellent balance to go along with intangibles, according to Haas.
“She somehow seems to play her best when her best is needed, in those big matches, against the best opponents she often plays really well,” Haas said.
Ely has no intention of giving up the indoor game at CCA. She enjoys the program’s camaraderie and loves playing for her school.
But after she graduates, she expects to be done with the indoor game – at least at the organized level – at which she became a rising star in the elite Wave club program.
“I’m still going to support my school and play for our school,” she said.
Ely hasn’t lost her passion for the indoor game, but the relentless pressure of a game that’s played year-round sometimes feels overly structured and offers very little time to decompress.
By contrast, the beach game affords the freedom to pursue a sport she loves on her own terms.
“With indoor there is more pressure on you and all the time,” she said. “In beach, it’s just you and your partner. It’s what you’re thinking and the mentality you and your partner have at the moment.”
Haas was an early adopter in beach volleyball, starting a CCA camp about 15 years ago that at the time was just about the only game in town.
CCA still runs the camp, but it’s a shadow of what it once was with most major clubs in the area incorporating the beach game.
“We were one of the only beach camps when we started, just trying to expose the indoor kids to the beach game and get them to love it,” Haas said. “The game has grown so much that there’s many, many people offering opportunities to play beach and there’s fewer kids to go around.”
Ely’s decision to pursue beach volleyball follows a growing trend that’s stirring concerns of a talent drain at the collegiate level.
CCA and Torrey Pines alums Hannah Martin and Jaden Whitmarsh are going on to pursue careers at elite sand programs at USC and UCLA. CCA’s Whitley Ballard and Samantha Lazenby are headed to Division I beach programs at South Carolina, and UC Davis.
Repetitive use injuries and burnout are among the factors often cited for the migration of top-level talent to the beach game.
“I think burn out is a possibility because you don’t have that same freedom of taking breaks as you can in beach,” Ely said.
Ely’s combination of power and athleticism is well-suited to the beach game, which requires players to possess a versatile skill set, and cover a lot more ground than the indoor game.
“It’s because she’s so balanced and is able to read and take in information and is very good at every skill – serving, passing, setting, hitting – that her game translates really well to the beach,” Haas said.
Her quiet leadership, along with her smarts, serve Ely well, too.
“She’s as an observer, which is a really important skill on the beach. To take in information and be able to use it and react, that’s really important.”
In the end, Ely’s decision to pick beach came down to simple arithmetic.
“Indoor is so much more time consuming,” Ely said. “In beach, you can make your own schedule and make yourself better. You choose how many times you go to practice and the tournaments you go to, so I kind of just wanted to give my time to beach.”