At The Sandbox, Beach Sports Reign on the Coldest Days
25 Jan 2022
Barefoot and wearing beach gear, volleyballers in teams of various compositions compete energetically across three regulation-size courts, falling and diving as they let out groans, whoops, and laughs.
The scene isn’t Esker Point Beach on a sun-kissed July day, but a fabric-covered, Quonset hut-style building on Route 184 in Groton near the Mystic border in the heart of winter.
The pride and joy of owners Jon Mihalko and Brendan Woolrich, The Sandbox doesn’t merely approximate the beach volleyball experience, it improves it. The 400 tons of custom sand is so fine that it provides players with soft landings, eliminating the unavoidable scrapes and nicks on beaches. The sand is replaced every couple of years, it is lightly oiled to minimize dust, and all 10,000-square feet of it is raked nightly. The nets also meet the specs for international play.
Ironically, Woolrich never played volleyball, beach or otherwise, until he moved from Jupiter, Fla., back to southeastern Connecticut in 2000. A family friend in Ledyard had an astroturf volleyball court in his backyard, he started playing regularly, and soon fell in love with the sport and the community of people around it.
He played in tournaments and leagues across Connecticut, and even went on volleyball vacations in Mexico. During these travels, Woolrich heard about an indoor volleyball facility in Denver, and the space on Welles St. previously occupied by Mystic Indoor Tennis became available he opened The Sandbox Indoor Beach Sports with four courts and a tiki bar in September 2010.
From that start, also began running beach volleyball tournaments at Esker Point Beach and Ocean Beach Park in New London. Then he spotted a 12.5-acre property on Route 184 that he said was “just woods and rocks.” After what he called “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” clearing the property and completing the building, The Sandbox opened in July 2019. It remains the only indoor beach volleyball facility in New England, and one of the few in the United States.
Woolrich, whose profession as a mechanical engineer occupies his days, shares operation of The Sandbox with co-owner Jon Mihalko. Woolrich runs the events, scheduling, and staffing, while Mihalko maintains its online presence and runs its leagues and programs.
Together, Woolrich said, “We give people a sense of place, of community, where people know each other’s names,” he said. When the weather allows, 16 by 16 foot panels open on opposite sides of the building, and on the side facing the road a sand area with beach chairs, grills, a fire pit and tiki torches gives members a place to gather and relax with full view of the action inside.
While The Sandbox attracts volleyball enthusiasts from near and farther afield in southern New England for its leagues and tournaments, it caters to enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels. Leagues of 2-, 4-, and 6-person teams, including co-ed teams, play three matches on league nights. Scrambles, in which players compete with different teammates for each game, are contested in both the adult and junior levels.
The Sandbox also offers a developmental league for players new and returning to the sport, which also includes introductions to beach volleyball skills, drills, and techniques, as well as mini-clinics. The range and schedule of all activities is available on its Web site: https://sandboxbeach.com/
Woolrich said those interested are welcome to visit The Sandbox, and free time for pickup games is set aside before league play.
The Sandbox also is available to rent for birthday parties, private play, and corporate events.