Paying It Forward: Passion for the Game
On a recent afternoon, groups of kids gathered at a pair of sand volleyball courts off of Village Road in Leland, practicing hitting volleyballs under the guidance of Gina Kirstein and her husband, Erik.
“Volleyball is a passion of mine,” Gina said. “It’s about spreading the love, growing the game and allowing players to play and train. Volleyball provided my college education, it’s where I met my husband, and I’m trying to pay that forward.”
Gina started playing volleyball in high school, before going on to play in college and then professionally. She was still playing professionally when she and Erik moved to the Wilmington area, in the early 1990s. She started coaching for a big volleyball club in Wilmington, as well as volunteering as an assistant volleyball coach for UNCW. But over time, the frequent weekend travel with the club started to wear on her, and she started to see many teens and children who wanted to play volleyball but didn’t make competitive teams.
“In 2018, there were some girls I had coached in indoor volleyball in high school who wanted to play beach volleyball,” Gina said. “They tried out for a local club but got cut. I took on all four, and all four are now playing beach volleyball in college.”
That was the beginning of Wilmington Beach Academy. Originally, Gina operated out of Wilmington restaurant and volleyball facility Dig and Dive.
“I was filling a gap,” Gina said. “It morphed into more people training, and then it started to grow.”
While the arrangement was beneficial in many ways, Gina said, working out of a facility that hosted local volleyball league games and events meant her schedule had to work around those events. As Wilmington Beach Academy grew, she needed a facility of her own. And then, at the beginning of 2020, Dig and Dive announced it was closing.
“I was coaching at UNCW, a volunteer assistant coach, and then COVID-19 hit,” she said. “We were in Florida and then that was it, it was the end of our season. I was shut down with Wilmington Beach Academy. There were a lot of unknowns with COVID-19. It was weird; and then I was like, ‘I need to focus on my facility and give it my full attention.’”
A former car lot with a small building off of Village Road offered the opportunity she needed. Gina and Erik did much of the work themselves to convert the car lot into a volleyball facility, with the building offering indoor space and offices. They brought in enough sand for two courts, added nets and fencing and created a paved patio next to the courts for spectators and parents.
“It’s been a process,” Gina said. “I’m not a business person; I sold insurance, so being an entrepreneur has been a lot of reading and educating myself. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been great.”
At Wilmington Beach Academy’s Leland facility, Gina works with kids of all ages. Her volley tots classes are for children 6 – 10 years old, and her volley kids classes are for pre-teens and teens 11-14. She also works with middle and high school students.
“There are some players who are a little more serious and want more than what I’m offering; I can point them in a direction, to a great club in town,” she said. “I’m more working with the rec-level kids, who are maybe newer to the sport. I hope to encounter some kids who have a lot of potential, and they can join the more committed groups that act more like a travel club.”
Beach volleyball clubs operate differently than indoor volleyball clubs, Gina added. In many cases they operate less like a team, with players sometimes choosing not to go to the same tournaments as their club or playing with players from other clubs.
“The way I’m doing it allows players to pick and choose what best fits their schedules,” Gina said of her volleyball lessons. “It’s a little different than a club for sure; there are pluses and minuses.”
“I don’t care how old you are or how talented you are. The things I value in my athletes are a positive attitude, an open mindset, and you have to be coachable and take instruction, you have to work hard. I don’t care if you’re skilled at all. If they give me those things, in time they can really develop to be a great little volleyball player. Some become phenomenal players.
“I don’t care if you’re a recreational player or trying to be a pro player. I want to create a fun and safe environment where you’re having a good time. That’s my goal, that and teaching life lessons through sports.”
In addition to the beach volleyball training for kids, Gina also offers private lessons for adults and juniors, can rent the courts for pick-up games. The entire facility can also be rented for birthday parties, baby showers, and similar events.
While there is no volleyball league play yet, Gina hopes to add it in the future.
“It’s evolving,” she said. “Before, I was just coaching. Now we’re expanding our menu with clinics for adults. I’m going to do clinics for adults about once a month, depending on the time of year and the draw.”
Gina is also hosting summer camps at the Leland facility this summer. A camp for middle school students recently concluded, and a camp for high-school students begins July 20. The camp will go over the rules and fundamentals of beach volleyball, and is open to high school students of all skill levels. Pre-registration closes on July 5; for more information, visit https://www.wilmingtonbeachacademy.com/summer-camps-2021.
“Volleyball is my passion, it is my job, it is my love, and it just makes me so happy to be out there and teaching kids,” Gina said. “When they have their ‘aha’ moments or hit their goals, it’s just pure joy to watch them be so proud of themselves. It just warms my heart.”