Jessica Stansfield parlayed the lessons learned under the tutelage of Hamilton resident Mike Vajo into a scholarship to play beach volleyball for Division I Grand Canyon University this season.

The culmination of nearly all young athletic careers becomes imminent as the days leading towards a high school graduation dwindle. For a young Hamilton athlete named Mike Vajo, there was seemingly no exceptions to be made.

A three-sport athlete playing soccer, basketball and baseball, he was self admittedly burned out on the traditional games as the years went by. The typical recipe for most youths’ retirement was all but said and done.

But for Vajo, this all changed on trips to a local park with a few friends. This was where the Hamilton resident’s story would truly begin, a story that has since spanned global and collegiate ranks while also launching the careers of young athletes everywhere.

All it took was a patch of sand and a volleyball.

“We would play sometimes, eight, 10 hours a day. Sometimes longer than that,” Vajo said. “The more we would play, the more we liked it and the better we got.”

Vajo has since compiled a volleyball resume that is tough to rival, highlighted by the founding of the East Coast Beach Volleyball Academy, a frontier program of its type located in Western New Jersey.

Vajo alone brings the utmost experience to the academy. Eight years of coaching and counting between Princeton University’s men and women’s teams to go along with time spent playing with USA Volleyball Adult Teams. At his side are other well-respected coaches, such as the 2008 New Jersey Volleyball High School Coach of the Year Mike Adams and others with decades plus of coaching under their belts. All are ready to help pace young athletes as they begin to play what has become the fastest growing sport in collegiate history.

Soon after his park-playing days began, Vajo and his friends introduced tournaments to their schedules. For five months out of the year, the men would spend each weekend playing, breeding a love of a game made otherwise popular to the masses for short weeks at a time during the Olympics.

Hamilton resident Mike Vajo (center in white shirt) talks to his East Coast Beach Volleyball Association athletes on the beach at Seaside Heights.
Hamilton resident Mike Vajo (center in white shirt) talks to his East Coast
Beach Volleyball Association athletes on the beach at Seaside Heights.

The tournament play would continue until injury forced Vajo to retire from competition at the age of 30. A misdiagnosed shoulder injury that first occurred seven years prior stopped Vajo as a Local Pro, a level that’s similar to the Double-A leagues of baseball’s farm systems. If the park was considered the first act of Vajo’s career, this injury would signal the beginning of act two.

“I started working with a youth team, and at the end of my first season of coaching, these girls were brand new to the game but really wanted to keep playing,” Vajo said. “We got to the end of the season in May, and that’s where the idea of teaching beach volleyball came about. That was really the first year of the program.”

And so the East Coast Beach Volleyball Academy was born.

The first year Vajo began with 10 players. The second year, 20.

Now, with the Academy celebrating its 10th anniversary, more than 350 beach volleyball athletes call the program their own. Growth has not only been seen in students, but with coaches as well. More than 20 coaches provide instruction, all of them with extensive volleyball experience. The man behind the empire was one in the same as the one who started his career so long ago with the most modest of means.

The academy now proudly boasts of championship alumni across the nation. In 2014, the academy had 12 first-place finishes. And with a growing base, the future has seemingly no ceiling in terms of success. The academy continues to expand.

“I came up with an idea to reach out to several of the area indoor club programs,” Vajo said. “I tried to get them on board with a franchise program. The idea was to partner with the indoor clubs around the area to get the players to come play in our beach program when the indoor program ends.”

The indoor programs consented, and the result was year-round volleyball training, both indoors and out, for athletes of all ages. While this was a huge leap in the progression of training, Vajo says another factor played into the boom of his academy as well.

“The introduction of college beach volleyball definitely helped everything along,” Vajo said. “(Having our athletes find success in college) opened a lot of eyes. That definitely helped everything, as suddenly parents and players are on board with the other opportunities available.”

With the potential of a Division I scholarship on the table for players, Vajo and the academy began to focus more time on this specific collegiate level preparation.

“We have a collegiate development program which really keys in on training kids in learning the game and understanding the recruiting process,” Vajo said.

The program is tryout based, which requires a much higher commitment level than the Acadmey’s traditional program, one that allows athletes to play beach volleyball competitively without the high stress and pressures of playing for the future.

The two types of training stand as the flagship programs for the East Coast Beach Volleyball Academy, representing the changing game in a simple, nearly poetic way. The traditional program allows young athletes to play the game in a competitive manner while avoiding the major stresses of recruitment and more. Then there is this recruitment side and the collegiate development program, which represents the future of beach volleyball.

It is a growing game that will soon see rapid expansion as more and more organizations like the East Coast Beach Volleyball Academy open shop.

Through it all, there is Vajo, the man who has helped put New Jersey beach volleyball on the map.

“My goal as a coach, is and always will be, to train players who want to be trained,” Vajo said. “I see New Jersey as an untapped market in terms of potential for beach volleyball…I’ll keep coaching and helping others find the same passion that I found for the game.”