Wallyball takes up where Olympic volleyball left off Sport: Enthusiasm for the sand and sun beach sport leads to a new wrinkle inside a Towson athletic club.


After an hour of setting, diving and bumping, Jody Houck emerges from the court with blood streaming down her knee.

Her 7-year-old son, Jamie, approaches her with concern. Don't worry, Houck, 36, replies as she towels off her legs. It's just an old sand scratch coming back to haunt the Towson resident.

This is the first injury incurred at the indoor sand wallyball court in the Merritt Athletic Club in Towson. And it's not exactly major, judging from the smile on Houck's face and her undisturbed black hoop earrings.

"I'm probably the only person who's ever been hurt doing this," she says. "This is not a blood sport."

The court was installed last month after the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball trials were held in Baltimore on a faux beach off Key Highway. In fact, the pseudo-beach at Merritt is made of the same 3 on 3 sand from Redland Genstar Inc. in Hunt Valley.

Houck is one of the 30 or so people a day who play wallyball on the sand court since its opening on July 22. In wallyball, the ball is allowed to bounce off the back walls, with the exception of the first serve. The average age of the participants is about 30, according to Nancy Hafford, general manager of the gym.

Spectators watch through glass decorated with sea horses, palm trees, fish and other tropical kitsch.

"It's like a little bit of Key West in Baltimore," Hafford says. "They want us to put in suntanning lights and serve pina coladas."

Installing the court involved more physical effort than money, Hafford says. All you need to do is look beneath the surface to see why.

About 20 1/2 tons of sand were brought in on two trucks. It was then transported into the gym by Hafford, another gym employee and a couple of friends. Roofing plastic had previously been set down as a buffer between the wood and the sand. The extra padding makes indoor playing safer than your average beach. This is a comfort to Houck, who plays on the same team with her husband, Jim, who has neck and knee problems. His daring dives and saves don't worry her as much as they otherwise would.

"It's safer than hard surfaces," she says. "That's why he's doing it. I signed him up."

But the great indoors also present their own set of obstacles.

"There's a chance you'll hit the wall," says Pete Merani, 36. "which is funny if it's not you."

The Towson resident also complains about steamy glasses or cold sand causing itchy contacts, both of which leave him blind. And discomfort extends beyond the body in some cases.

"Does ego count?" he asks, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "There have been a few injuries there."

If you think that's brutal, check out the mothers who play in the morning.

"They get pretty aggressive out there," Hafford says. "They said they needed a referee; I said they needed a bouncer."

No matter how messy it gets on the court, that's where the mess stays. Post-game, players must dip their sand-encrusted feet in water buckets and vacuum the remnants so as not to track the tropics into the gym.

Now that's good, clean fun.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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