I played my first AVP tournament my senior year of college with my Northridge teammate Ty Tramblie. Ty was the only other “beach guy” at Northridge so, despite the fact that we competed for the same setting position indoor, we’d play beach together as much as possible. At first, this consisted of games on the shallow dorm courts that felt more like kitty litter than actual sand. Then we heard rumors of a guy living near campus with a sand court in his backyard so we found out where and showed up one day. When no one answered the door we climbed the fence and crept to the backyard where some middle-aged men were playing doubles. They stopped their game, surprised to see some kids nervously crossing their yard. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could play next. That’s how we met Jim, a man who spent his entire twenties working on a fishing boat in Alaska before coming back a decade older and with enough money to buy a house in Northridge and build a sand volleyball court. We were lucky to find Jim’s court. It gave us and other Northridge players a place to play for years to come. Sometimes I’d sneak over to Jim’s on game days to get some doubles in, then hurry straight to the team locker room to shower all traces of sand off before our Northridge match. I couldn’t get enough volleyball.
During the summers Ty and I drove my Ford Escort along the coast to CBVA tournaments. We won a handful of AAAs but I never thought much about a professional volleyball career. In my mind, there was a huge leap between what I was doing and the pros on the AVP. But the summer after our senior year Ty talked me into entering the AVP Huntington Beach Open. We were seeded 66th in the qualifier, 98th overall. Not knowing any better, we made it through the qualifier into the main draw—split blocking the whole way.
Our first round in the main draw we played the number 1 seed, Larry Witt and Sean Rosenthal. You know, this guy:
It went as expected.
I remember feeling like it was a one-time thing. That it was awesome we qualified but we didn’t belong at that next level. This view was reinforced when security wouldn’t let us into the player tent (if he shaved his beard today, Ty would still look like a 15-year-old). It was fun to say we played in a professional event but I didn’t believe I was bound for the AVP.
Flash forward thirteen years and I’m playing Sean Rosenthal again, this time it’s in an AVP final. My second straight final of the 2017 season.
The previous year I won the AVP Seattle Open with Theo Brunner for my first professional title. So going into this year, Seattle was already a special tournament for me. It’s also special because my wife Janelle is from the Pacific Northwest (she played volleyball and basketball at Eastern Washington—stud, right?) so we had lots of family and friends at the tournament. My partner Stafford Slick’s wife and newish son also flew out for the event.
We went into the tournament seeded 5th after a great start to the year finishing 5th, 3rd, then 2nd. Numbers-wise we were on the right track but more importantly, we were playing our best volleyball as a team. Not only did making the final in New York give us a little confidence boost, Stafford said he watched the final when we got back from The Hague and noticed a few things about his blocking. Watching slow motion replays on the big screen he could see he was spreading his arms really wide and not getting over as far as he could be, causing him to get tooled a lot. The plan for Seattle was to try a more narrow, simple block, so whatever area he was taking he would get over and seal. This would hopefully make it easier for me to play defense behind him, without his hands reaching for everything and deflecting balls. But last minute technique changes are easier said than done; we all revert to old habits come game time and if I was a 6’8” blocker I’d try to touch everything too!
In addition to the blocking change, we had been growing more comfortable with running a varied offense. Shoots to the pin had become more and more effective for us as well as running back sets, especially for Stafford. We had experimented with running quicks out of the middle but Doug English, who is doing some number crunching for us, noted this was our least effective set as we were coming right at the blocker without making him move his feet. In the past, I’ve always taken a high up and down set and relied on getting a good look at the defense but with the top level blockers we face it’s nice to have other options in case we get into side-out trouble.
We started out the tournament on Friday with a solid win over my first partner, Ty Tramblie and Avery Drost. (I can’t tell you how happy I am that Ty and I are still playing after all these years. Ty also has an AVP title to his name.) Then we lost our 2nd round match to Hyden/Doherty. We didn’t play bad, they were just better with Ryan’s block forcing hitting errors from our end.
One nice thing about playing through the loser’s bracket is you get plenty of reps (another is all the extra games pad your stats). Stafford and I played better and better as Saturday wore on, getting in a nice groove beating Piotr/Rafu, Priddy/Ratledge, and then Brunner/Patterson all in straight sets. We were siding out well and running some tempo sets but the biggest factor was Stafford’s block. He looked like a different player, making moves and getting over quick and simple. Everything that touched his hands went to the sand where only a week ago it was flying into the stands. Stafford would end up leading the tournament with 25 blocks, but more than that, his more disciplined technique made it easier to play behind and improved my digging. We were on the same page with more of a team defense rather than both of us trying to do too much.
We made the semis. Sunday we would face the number 1 seed, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb. This team had beaten us twice this year and are one of the best defensive teams around. In the New York final, Jake had been unstoppable. With his classic high swing, he sent the ball sailing off Stafford’s hands into he stands. But with Stafford’s improved blocking style we thought we’d have the chance for a better match up and I’d get a good look at Jake’s swings where Stafford had been poaching in and deflecting them before. We started serving Jake and jumped out to a big early lead. This was probably my best match of the tournament. I was putting myself in the right spot on defense and I felt comfortable siding out. Jake is a great blocker and knows my tendency to hit angle and more angle, but the shoot set to the pin was allowing me to hit hard down the line and give me a variety of swings.
I think with both the Gibb match and the quarterfinals against Casey and Theo, we caught two teams not at their best. But we played great and took advantage. At the match point freeze, we ended the game with a dig on Jake that I thought I put away until Taylor somehow flew off the court and kept it alive for Stafford to seal it with a blast up the middle from a shoot set. I’ve learned to give Stafford some distance after he makes a big play. As you see here the line judge was not so lucky.
In the other semi-final, Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb beat John Mayer and Jeremy Casebeer. So once again we would be playing our old nemeses, Rosie and Trevor. It’s strange how different exterior elements can change your focus or perspective. Going into the semis and the New York final we were playing a team who was clearly the favorite. Now we were playing a strong team in Rosie and Trevor but we had a 3-1 record against them going into the final so it seemed like we had a strong shot. Much like in the New York final, the announcers and commentators kept playing up the fact that this would be someone’s first win, either Stafford or Trevor. I feel like this added another layer of pressure and was something in the back of my mind for much of the match. You don’t know how many chances you’ll get to win a tournament and since neither of us were playing someone with “-hausser” on the end of their name, both teams knew this was a good opportunity.
We had served Trevor a lot in our previous meetings but he’s been playing better and better so we decided to start on Rosie, if nothing else to maybe throw their game plan out of whack. The final started as all of our matches against them had, as a side-out battle. We got one early point on them and then no one got another stop through the 11-10 timeout. With everyone’s offensive game on point, it looked like we were going to have to side-out near flawlessly to win.
Then we went on a scoring run. Stafford started hitting his jump serve and disrupting their passing. Then he got 3 blocks in a row. Getting more and more fired up after each one. The energy carried into the rest of his game as he continued to serve tough and annihilate option balls; if I got a look at a dig I’d push it up to the net and he’d turn and crush it on two. We went on a huge run at the end of the first game and won handily 21-13.
The next game was the exact reverse. After a 5 min TV break, we came out flat while they turned it up a notch. Both Trevor and Rosie were ripping their jump serves and creating points. We struggled to pass and made some hitting errors and they earned a bunch of real points. We would get crushed in return 13-21.
As the game is going on I’m telling myself the right things. This is a good challenge. Let’s bounce back and see what you can do. Relax, just focus on this next pass. But knowing what to think and doing it in a high-pressure setting are different. As much as I tried to exercise them, negative thoughts about blowing the one game lead were creeping in and taking up residence in my mind. The loudest voice of all was reminding me, You’re going to blow this and lose Stafford his chance to win a tournament!
Where we had played loose and free most of the Seattle tournament, I now felt jittery and the added pressure that I would let Stafford down. I stood up through most of the 2nd game TV break, shaking my legs and trying to stay warm so I didn’t come out flat again. I tried to push away the outside thoughts, letting the 2nd game go and focusing on the next. Our coach, Jon Daze gave us some things to focus on to settle us down and when the ref blew the whistle we were ready to get after it.
“Let’s have fun,” I said as we got into serve receive position.
The game started with a couple miss serves by them that gave us a little breathing room and eased the nerves. We stayed aggressive pushing our sets to the net and taking high hard swings, working our way back to the team from the first game. As the game wore on and we earned a slight lead, the only voices I heard were the real ones coming from our wives, Janelle and Julie, yelling from their courtside seats.
After a couple hitting errors by Trevor and Rosie, we had a 14-11 lead going into the freeze. We would be serving for championship point. It went back and forth for a few side-outs, each time we put the ball away came with a feeling of relief and another championship point opportunity. Stafford ended the match with a massive angle block before screaming and collapsing to his knees.
After shaking hands with the other team and the refs, I headed for Janelle and took my son, Ketch, onto the court with me. Stafford grabbed Edison as well and we held them through the post-game interview.
A lot has changed in the thirteen years since my first AVP tournament. I didn’t have a passport—now I’m traveling the world playing volleyball. I didn’t have a girlfriend—now I’m a father holding up his son on TV. I drove a Ford Focus—now…I still have a pretty crappy car. Thirteen years ago, I don’t think that skinny college kid could have imagined any of this, but I know he’d be happy he’s still playing volleyball.