It was an hour drive from our hotel to downtown Cabo San Lucas where we were going for a glass-bottom boat ride. I sat in the front seat of the large charter bus filled with guests of South of the Border Volleyball Vacations, answering questions to pass the time. After the usual talk about technique and the drama behind partner breakups, someone asked, “What’s your favorite game you’ve ever played?”
Thinking back over my career, my favorite matches aren’t necessarily my best finishes. I don’t remember the details of my first main draw win other than my opponent, Brent Doble, approached me after the match to recount all the lucky breaks I got. The most memorable matches usually have a few factors that make them stand out: the strength of opponent, how close the score was, and how well I played.
As the bus cruised down the Mexican highway, I told a story from the 2013 Santa Barbara AVP. It was the end of the day and the sun was setting into a perfect dusk. It was the rare time when the player’s eyes aren’t hidden behind sunglasses and you can see everything they’re seeing. All other games had finished so everyone on the beach gravitated to the outer court where two nobodies were somehow beating the super team of Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal. Other than our parents and Danny Kinda, everyone on the beach was rooting for Phil and Rosie. Loudest of all being the infamous Rosie’s Raiders—a gang of Southbay locals that magically appear at every event to heckle Rosie’s opponents. My partner Braidy Halverson and I led in the first game largely because Rosie’s legs were cramping making him human on defense and unable to run down shots. Somehow the cramping didn’t affect his offense as he was still able to jump over us and bounce balls into the standing crowd. Braidy and I were siding out well, knowing if we could get the ball around Phil’s block we had a chance. We were up 18-13 and about to take our first ever set off Phil Dalhausser. Then, Phil got it going. He elevated in the shallow West Beach sand and aced us off the court to steal the game 21-23. Braidy and I slumped back into our player’s box to the chants of the Raiders who colorfully reminded us how badly we choked. But we didn’t shy away after the comeback loss. We won the next game in overtime, 23-21.
As much as Rosie’s legs were crumbling under him on defense he was still thundering the ball. As good teams do, they took control of the third game early, playing with more energy as the Santa Barbara crowd grew louder. We called a timeout down 2-8 and the game looked over.
I mentioned that one factor that made a game memorable was how well I played—you don’t tell a bus full of people a story about the time you sucked. This match I played well but it was Braidy who stood out. He received most of the serves and at 6’4” he had to run to the net and match up with the 6’9” Dalhausser. After our timeout, we came out with new fire and clawed back into the game, forcing it once again into overtime before taking the lead 18-17.
I’ll never forget the final point of the match. We’d been serving Rosie and getting points off him during our comeback surge but we’d since been unable to score a real point. Braidy must have miss-hit his serve because it went middle enough that Phil could step in and take it. Not only did he serve the wrong guy but as Rosie finished setting, Braidy pulled off the net. You could feel the crowd’s collective inhale to brace for how hard Phil Dalhausser was going to smash the open net. Braidy didn’t even make it all the way back on defense, he got stuck in no man’s land, twisting awkwardly back to face the Thin Beast’s punishment. Even years later, I have this picture clear in my mind. Phil crushed the ball and the retreating Braidy lurched back, lifting his left hand like a waiter holding an empty platter at his side. The ball bounced off his hand straight up into the sky. I got under it and bumped Braidy up to the net where he put the ball away angle to win the match, 21-23, 23-21, 19-17.
And thus was born the foolproof game plan, “Just serve Phil and pull.”
I rode the high of that win all night. We had beat the best team in the world and were getting to play in the semi-finals on Sunday. The great feeling would not last long, however, as Braidy showed up the next morning unable to move his neck and we got throttled 11-21, 10-21.
The 2017 San Francisco semi-final now tops the list as probably the greatest match I’ve been a part of. The strength of opponent was there: the Brazilian legend Ricardo Santos and US indoor star Reid Priddy—maybe the most dynamic player ever, indoor or beach. They have five Olympic medals between them and a ton of big-game experience.
It was a tight game the whole way with both guys siding out well and Ricardo’s block scoring them points. Ricardo has the deceptive moves of a small blocker but the arms of Drax the Destroyer—he shows you an opening and then slams the door shut. I hadn’t really been touched by the block all tournament but he got me a couple times early. This forces you to worry about the blocker and hit reactive shots. And behind him is Reid Priddy; however hard I hit the ball, Reid has faced double the speed. As the match went on, Stafford and I found more success shooting against this team, keeping away from Ricardo’s block and making Reid play against more deceptive “beach shots.” Our game plan worked and we pulled out the first set in overtime, 24-22.
The second set was more of the same including some spectacular plays by their side. Like this one of Reid transitioning a ball on the left. See Video
Towards the end of the second set, Stafford reached high for a swing and came down wincing and touching his side. It looked like he had tweaked something. We continued to play but it only grew worse. He didn’t have the same power. Then he started hitting with his left hand. Even more than his attack, the injury was affecting his block. Up until this point, Stafford had been dominating at the net, averaging an amazing four blocks per set for the tournament. But now his side was limiting his reach and Reid was bouncing the ball angle inside of us. A few plays later when he went back to serve, Stafford said he couldn’t raise his arm to its full height. He toughed it out as the game was close and we had a chance of finishing in two. But Ricardo and Reid kept the pressure on us, forcing a few errors and winning the second set 20-22.
Between games, Stafford stayed standing outside the player’s box to prevent his side from tightening more. Things were not looking good. Seeing that Stafford wasn’t hitting at his usual velocity they went at him in the third and as the set went on it became clear that something was wrong. We went down 6-10 and called a timeout. We then called our official medical timeout but I didn’t think it was going to help. Stafford was suffering muscle spasms in his oblique that caused his entire right side to seize up and unless the medical provider knew some Mr. Miyagi rubbing technique, he wasn’t going to get better.
These long breaks in games are tough; you can lose your touch, get cold, come out flat. On the other side of the net, Reid put on a long sleeve shirt and he and Ricardo were peppering to stay warm. I walked out to the court and grabbed a ball but couldn’t think of what I’d do with it by myself so just bumped it around while Stafford got checked out. When the medical timeout was over, it was clear Stafford wasn’t better but he decided to play on as the game was almost over. He received the same crowd applause little leaguers get when they walk off an injury. The game resumed and I tried to pass a little more court but they stayed on him. Stafford managed to side-out with a couple hits ricocheting off Ricardo’s block and falling inches out of bounds. But we weren’t close to stopping them and soon it was match point, 14-9. Even with the freeze-scoring rule, it looked like it was over for us. In fact, many people told me later they stopped watching at this point, turning the game off as the ending was inevitable. I don’t blame them, I thought the same thing. I told Stafford, “Well, let’s make them work for it.”
Stafford passed the next ball wide and I got to it and hit a slide on two for the side-out. The next match point Ricardo was doing spirit fingers to the crowd, getting them pumped for their soon-to-be victory. I gave Stafford a low set and he managed to hit an almost standing cut shot just out of Ricardo’s reach to save the match. The problem was, even if we were able to side-out a few times we weren’t going to be able to score points with Stafford blocking half as high as normal. So when it was Stafford’s serve I asked him if he wanted to run up to the net or if I should block. At 6’2” I hadn’t blocked on tour since my first season playing with Ty Tramblie in 2004, but we were desperate and since we had no chance of winning it would at least save Stafford the pain of raising his arms.
The game slows down in side-out scoring with points no longer awarded every play. It became easier to let go of the game as a whole and focus on winning the one rally that was in front of me. Serve and serve receive become compartmentalized as two different jobs. On one end I was doing whatever I could to help Stafford, give him the low set he needed and make the right call or take a swing on two if I had the option, which is something I rarely ever do as a smaller right-side player. On the other end, each time we sided out and kept the game alive we earned another opportunity to make a play and score a real point. I began jump serving. When blocking I tried to read the hitter and take as much court as I could, knowing Stafford wasn’t able to cover his share.
I was no longer paying attention to the score but playing as hard as I could and taking every opportunity I had to finish a rally. Every play we won didn’t feel like cause for celebration because we were still so far behind. I got a big block, something I never do, and didn’t even feel the excitement because there was more work to do. When we’d get a dig and convert, it was right back to work. At some point, as the energy in the stadium grew wilder I looked over and saw that we had somehow tied the game at 14-14. That was the first time I realized the game wasn’t over, that we could actually win this.
Following a hitting error, we had match point. We served Reid and I was up blocking with Stafford playing defense. I focused on Reid’s approach. If he was coming in hard to hit I was going to get over and take as much court as possible. If it looked like he was slowing or the set was off, I was going to defend his cut shot. As he came in it looked like he was shooting over me. I stepped over into the cut and jumped late, getting enough of a piece of the ball to slow it down. I turned and back-bumped Stafford up hoping he could do something with it. Stafford had enough left to get up and hit the ball down the middle for the win. Only when that final ball landed did I let the emotion go.
If I wasn’t celebrating during the match, the feelings I had afterward made up for it. I ran over to the stands and reached over the railing to Janelle, both of us shaking as we embraced. It felt amazing to have pulled off that comeback victory. It felt bigger than winning the tournament. We were stretched and rose to the challenge. I was forced to play outside my comfort zone, jump serving and hitting on two and blocking. Because of this, I was more proud and excited about that match than our tournament win two weeks before.
Over the next week, I heard from a lot of people that were either stunned by the comeback or had turned it off at 14-9 thinking it was over. In my parents’ house where they had the living room packed with people watching, it had gotten so intense that my dad left to watch in another room. Being able to share the moment with so many others made the match even more memorable. We make great plays in practice but it feels like it needs to happen on the big stage under pressure to have real emphasis. That semi-final match in San Francisco was now my most memorable match and the next time I find myself entertaining people on a bus in Mexico I’ll have a new story to share. I’m sure by then I’ll be able to make it sound even bigger.
Read Part 2