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By Ross Atkin / May 9, 1995

Volleyball Builds Its Popularity On the Sand; Dream Coach

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VOLLEYBALL, like softball, has at least one foot firmly planted in the recreational area -- some might say in the sand, given the popularity of beach volleyball.

Getting people to pay attention to high-caliber volleyball competition isn't easy, which is where beach volleyball, with its fun-in-the-sun image, has made headway with spectators. The beach version, with its bronze-bodied, bathing-suited men and women spikers, has a television appeal that traditional indoor volleyball lacks, which may explain why beach volleyball has been added to the Olympic program next year in Atlanta.

Players who toil inside, though, form the closest link to the sport's origins, which were celebrated over the weekend in Springfield, Mass. The National Collegiate Athletic Association held its men's national championship there as part of volleyball's 100th anniversary. The sport was invented a short distance away in Holyoke, Mass., by William G. Morgan, a physical-fitness instructor who followed in the steps of another YMCA pioneer, James Naismith, who invented basketball several years earlier. Morgan wanted to develop an alternative to basketball for a noontime businessmen's class. He originally used a tennis net, a nine-inning format, and the name ''minonette.''

Today's college game is a high-powered, dynamic sport. On the men's side, it is dominated by California teams, which have won 25 of the last 26 tournaments. UCLA won its 15th Division I title Saturday with a 3-games-to-none victory over defending champion Penn State. Indiana's Ball State University and the University of Hawaii were the other Final Four teams.

At the same time this tournament was occurring, hundreds of amateur enthusiasts engaged in a three-on-three grass tournament on the intramural fields of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Spikefest '95 was the brainchild of Rodney Hand, a Dallas advertising executive who has enjoyed great success with a similar all-comers event in Dallas. He envisions taking the concept to California and Chicago in the next few years.

Hand casts his tournaments as more family affairs than the beer-sponsored beach-volleyball events. Here, the sponsor is a mouthwash, Listerine, and no alcohol is served. He thinks the grass game is a happy medium, too, between the two-player beach teams and the six-player regular volleyball. The grass game incorporates higher leaping and faster running than on beaches and provides a more forgiving surface than hardwood floors.

Wilkens gets dream job

LENNY WILKENS wasn't given long to bask in the news that he will coach the United States men's basketball team in the 1996 Centennial Olympics. Shortly after Wilkens was given the ''keys'' to the powerful American national team, his National Basketball Association squad, the Atlanta Hawks, was dismissed from the postseason playoffs with three straight losses to Indiana.