Stories Of Americans Passionately At Play

"Sport, at its best, at its most human, is able to inspire an innocence and joy that is unique to each of us."
~ Richard Corman ~
Empty courts await action at the 2015 AVP Manhattan Beach Open

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The Volleyball Diaries

A Stumble Through The Wonderful World Of Digs, Sets, Blocks & Kills

The 2014 Manhattan Beach Open

A view of Manhattan Beach during the AVP Manhattan Beach Open

It’s just another day at the beach – until a professional volleyball tournament breaks out.

Although I profess to love all sporting events separately and equally, I do have to admit that I have preferences. I do play favorites. And what is it that earns an event “favorite” status? Well, I like to be outside. I like warm weather, preferably accompanied by sunshine. If the event features the very best athletes in their sport, that scores points with me. As does a reasonable admission price. And if I don’t have to get on a plane to get there, so much the better.

Which brings me to the AVP Manhattan Beach Open. It’s outside. In the warm sunshine. International superstars and Olympic medalists appear at every turn. And get this—it’s a free event located close enough for me to bicycle to. So I did.

The wonderful thing about multi-day events is that Day One offers a veritable smorgasbord of play. Story lines just lay there waiting to be discovered. And as I mentioned previously, I already had one in mind when I set out for Manhattan Beach. Looking forward to a teary reunion worthy of reality television, I had dumped my bike and scrambled over to the Open’s gigantic pairings board, looking for the identity of the court upon which my long lost kin, Presley Forbes and her partner, Lorna Brandt, would be playing their first round match. It was then that I discovered that they hadn’t survived the Qualifier.

With that familial bonding opportunity gone south, I had a clean slate, rooting interest-wise. So I adopted the strategy that had done me well throughout the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” tour of 100 sporting events. I winged it.

The beauty of the MBO is that play is spread out over almost a dozen different courts. And during the first two days of the event, most of them are in continuous use in order to winnow down 32-team fields of both men and women to a championship Sunday of just four teams of each gender. That level of choice made it a breeze for me to get a front row seat, despite what was an impressive turnout of fans for a Friday morning.

I left the Big Board, walked to the nearest court, and plopped myself down in the sand just a few feet from the action. This stop and plop strategy is more than a little Forrest Gump-ian, for the first round of the MBO is like a box of volleyball chocolates—and I had no idea what I was going to get.

Close-up of women's championship plaque for 2013 Manhattan Beach Open

A bird’s eye view of a permanent addition to the Manhattan Beach Pier’s walkway.

The first thing I got, in fact, was Whitney Pavlik, along with her partner, Heather Hughes. Pavlik had spent some time the previous day on the adjacent Manhattan Beach Pier, where a simple bronze plaque bearing both her name and that of Kerri Walsh Jennings was presented for permanent installation in the pier’s 928-foot long walkway. The other tidbit of info on that plaque reads “2013 Manhattan Beach Open Champions.” So completely by random access I wound up watching one of the defending champions play just feet away from me. And thus was I drawn into the women’s draw of the 55th MBO.

But back to that pier thing. Simple as a plaque-on-a-pier may sound, this is a big, big deal. Ask any American beach volleyball player to name a single spot on the planet on which they’d most like to see their name displayed, and the nearly unanimous response you’ll get is “the Manhattan Beach Pier.”

While some other California beach towns might quibble, it’s widely held that the ancestral home of beach volleyball lies in this community. If you begin strolling the pier where it spills out from the foot of Manhattan Beach Boulevard, every few feet you’ll come across the names of the legends of the sport. Late to the sport as I am, I still easily recognized names like Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith, as well as Holly McPeak, without whom there might not have been a Misty May and a Kerri Walsh.

Manhattan Beach Open 1980 men's champion's plaque   Plaque on Manhattan Beach Pier recognizing 2003 champions Misty May and Kerri Walsh

As I sat in the cool sand getting acclimated to my up-close-and-personal locale, what I found most noteworthy was the lack of onlooker reaction to what I thought were remarkable feats of athleticism, the sprawling saves in particular. Perhaps those watching with me had seen (and even done) this a million times, but I got a huge kick out of seeing just how far “out of reach” a ball could be and still somehow wind up being returned. In fact, while I did quickly get used to the ease with which these elite players managed the serve, set and kill, the entire defensive side of the game—the blocks, the digs, and especially those unfathomable saves—remains a wonder to me.

Pavlik and Hughes cruised through their first-round match—not surprising given their #4 tournament seeding—and by the time they were done I had become pretty comfortable with my toes in the sand just outside of Court #1. I decided to stay put, and for that decision I was rewarded with a perfect Summer Day. I refer, of course, to possibly the most appropriately-named beach volleyball team of all time.

Emily Day & Summer Ross get set to receive serve at the 2014 AVP Manhattan Beach Open

Emily Day (left) & Summer Ross prepped for action on a perfect Summer Day.

The “Summer” part is Summer Ross, who looks exactly like the proverbial Girl Next Door—if you happen to live adjacent to a family of very tall people in Carlsbad, California. Just 22 years old, Ross already has a handful of gold medals from international competition, as well as a collegiate national championship. Which might explain her completely unflappable demeanor.

The “Day” part is Emily Day. If Ross looks like the Girl Next Door, Day actually is one when it comes to the Manhattan Beach Open. She grew up a few miles away, in Torrance, and attended Loyola Marymount University, just a stone’s throw from where yours truly had climbed on my bike and departed for the tournament that morning. And if one harbored any doubts whatsoever about Day’s local girl status, Em’s Entourage was quick to clear that up. Loud and proud, friends and family came out in numbers to make the most of this Summer Day pairing.

An Em's Entourage sign is held by fans of Emily Day at the 2014 AVP Manhattan Beach Open

Despite their relative youth, Summer Day came into the Open as the fastest-rising team on the AVP Tour. But they’d yet to have advanced to a tournament final. Could this be the one? Judging by the speed with which they dispatched their first opponents, it seemed quite possible.

Next up on Court #1 was the team that included the incongruously-named Brooke Sweat. I say this because she barely broke one as she and teammate Lauren Fendrick dismissed Leah DeKok and Michelle Sobo Cinski. This shouldn’t have surprised me, since Sweat and Fendrick were the tournament’s #2 seed, based, I’m guessing, on the fact that they’d finished second in every AVP tournament played thus far in the season.

But the thing that was most memorable to me about Brooke Sweat was that each time a volunteer tossed a ball to her when it was her turn to serve, she said “Thank you.” Sincerely, and while looking directly at them. Every. Single. Time. If you don’t think that’s remarkable, you have clearly not attended a professional sporting event in quite some time. I became a huge fan.

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