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It almost seemed as if Trevor Crabb couldn’t believe what was coming out of his own mouth, when he recalled his conversation with Casey Patterson following his victory at the Manhattan Beach Open. Crabb’s first AVP win came after seven losses in AVP finals. It came after the beach volleyball world populated the hashtag #NevorTrevor, where some pushed it in their posts seriously and others just jokingly.

Everybody knew, of course, that Crabb would get his. One doesn’t simply make seven finals and lose all of the rest to come. Crabb claimed, on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, that there was no added pressure with each passing tournament and no title. What it did do, however, is build up that moment, when he sealed the seam with his right hand and blocked Patterson for the final point of his first win on tour, at the biggest beach volleyball tournament not named The Olympics, no less.

The euphoria afterwards was so high, such a rush, in fact, he told Patterson that “I almost wish it didn’t happen, because I know the feeling and what it did so I want that same feeling again. It’s all downhill from here.”

So where do we go from here, Trevor?

“Just rack ‘em up,” he said. “Tally ‘em up. Win as many as possible.”

It is funny, how that first win came. Tri Bourne had broken his hand at the Vienna Major, leaving Crabb not short of options but certainly short of his No. 1 option. He asked the AVP to allow Italian Alex Ranghieri, with whom Crabb is good friends and plays the Manhattan six-man, but they shot it down. He shot a text to Sean Rosenthal, with whom he had made the 2018 Manhattan Open finals, but that got shot down, too. Which left, of all things, a text from Rich Lambourne that went without reply.

“Priddy-Crabb on the Pier, 2019?” Lambourne asked Priddy and Crabb in a group text.

Nobody replied, though it remained in the backs of their minds. Crabb was going to reach out to Priddy before he did, so when Priddy gave Crabb the call, they were both all in. Didn’t matter if Priddy hadn’t blocked since 2017, for just a single event, or that they had never played together before, or that they had once shared some trash talk and brief rivalry.

Crabb knew they could win.

“To be honest, I knew it was definitely a possibility,” he said. “It was going to be tough to do but I knew that both of us really just wanted it bad. I’d been to the finals seven times, that was my eighth, lost all seven. Reid’s never made a final yet in his two years so we were both long overdue for that.”

That win was more than just a victory for Crabb and Priddy, but a win for the mindset they share: To be the best, you cannot specialize in one element. You must be versatile. You must, as Crabb and Priddy proved, be able to play both sides, both positions.

Basically: You just gotta get the job done, from anywhere, anytime, in any condition. And they did.  

“In order to call yourself a beach volleyball player, you have to be able to side out from anywhere on the court so I kind of took that on me and focused and learned how to side out on the right side,” Crabb said. “It’s a lot more challenging than the left. You have a lot less vision, you have to rely on a lot of things first. It’s going pretty good so far. I can’t say I miss the left at all though. It’s nice to play both sides. I think that’s what separates me from someone else.”

And now the next chapter of his career begins. His AVP victory – his first, certainly not the last – is finished. Now it’s time to rack ‘em up, tally ‘em up, build ‘em up to the ultimate crescendo: The 2020 Olympic Games.

The one victory he would never wish didn’t happen.

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Good luck in your search. You can travel to every tournament, watch every match, pour over film for hours. Good luck finding a moment on a beach volleyball court in which Delaney Knudsen is not smiling.

She’ll pop up smiling after losing a point, because what a rally it was. She’ll smile after making an error, because sometimes errors can be funny, you know? She’ll smile after her partner makes an error, because, gosh, what a good idea it was to hit that shot.

But don’t allow that joyful demeanor to bely the competitor underneath the 1,000-watt smile and ubiquitous laugh. She’s a winner, Knudsen. Always has been, from the days she practiced with the boys team at Valencia High School to her All-American years at Pepperdine to the career year she’s currently having on the AVP Tour.

It’s just not the wins that she lives for.

“I think that if you don’t have fun playing this game, then why are you playing this game?” Knudsen said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I don’t really see any other viable reason to be playing professional beach volleyball unless you have fun playing beach volleyball. There’s not enough money in it, there’s not the fame that you’re going to be recognized on the street for playing it. So if you can’t have fun, then why are you doing it? It’s been awesome to play with Katie because she gets that: If it’s not fun, then why are we doing it?”

She has a blast with Spieler, truly. And we’ll get to her in a minute, and the friendship that has blossomed out of their love for this game. But Knudsen finds the fun in everything. She’ll laugh wildly at Jess Sykora’s jump-bump kills, and the memory of playing behind Sykora in New York City last season, when they stunned Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan in the qualifier. She’ll beam when recalling the grit and work ethic of Emily Hartong, with whom she qualified in Seattle a few months ago.

But there is something, or dozens and dozens of things, about Spieler that Knudsen loves to her core. It makes sense, too. They grew up playing in the U.S.A. High Performance system together, every other year. They made their first main draws together, in Manhattan Beach of 2014, when they were both teenagers. They’ve got the same mindset, both on the court and off: Let this game, and life, be fun.

“Just being able to laugh and have fun and work hard, which are all my favorite parts of the game, she loves those too, so it feels super comfortable to be out there with someone who has the exact same goals as I do,” Knudsen said. “I think that just the ability to push my body and to work really hard is my favorite part. I love getting to the end of a rally where you’re sandy and you’ve grinded out and bunch of one-handed scramble plays, and win or lose, I can’t come out of a rally like that not smiling, because just working and leaving it all on the court even in just one rally is my favorite part. We come out on top of most of those because we love that pressure and love that work that kind of gets on people’s nerves.”

Spieler feels the same, too. After finishing 17th in Hermosa Beach earlier this season – a deceptively low finish, as they were the ones who sent Zana Muno and Crissy Jones, eventual semifinalists, into the contender’s bracket with a 21-14, 21-10 win – they met with their coach, who had made an interesting observation from Spieler. Last year she had taken a fifth, this year, 12 spots lower.

Yet she was unquestionably happier after this one.  

“It was interesting to see what someone else could weigh in on our partnership and just the chemistry we had and just the way we played together and that I could kind of help foster that enjoyment of the game for her just as she was doing for me,” Knudsen said. “I would not have expected that we would have finished the season together but couldn’t be any happier that we are.”

No, it was not the initial plan to finish as a left-side blocker. For the majority of her professional and college career, Knudsen has been a defender. While she’s always been adept at switching sides, she played on the right for most of 2018 with Sykora. Then came Spieler’s call to play Hermosa, and suddenly Knudsen was taking on a new position, a new side, and a style of play that can only be described as grind the other team into the ground.

And then laugh about it.

“If you would have told me I would have ended this season as a blocker I probably would have laughed and been really embarrassed because I don’t really consider myself to be a strong blocker,” said Knudsen, who finished AVP Chicago ranked second among all blockers in blocks per set. “I wouldn’t do it any other way, getting the opportunity to play with Katie and grow my game in such a unique way has been an incredible experience.”

As much as she’s enjoyed the physical learning curve as a blocker, competing with a new but old partner, Knudsen is particularly enamored with the mental strides she’s made, and is making.

“We can be down three points at the end of a set and I’m not worried, because [Katie] wins,” Knudsen said. “She makes those plays at the end and it’s been really cool to learn from her and adapt that into my own game, to know have that internal confidence. People say it all the time: ‘You’re never out of the game, lotta game left, that’s why we play’ but it’s all just words until you feel it. And playing with Katie I’ve been able to feel what that feels like and it’s been incredible.”

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Two years ago, maybe it would have worked. Maybe, when Miles Evans put a ball away, looked directly at Reid Priddy and Trevor Crabb, flexed and yelled with everything he had, “C’mon!” it would have done the trick. Thrown Priddy off.

It had worked two years ago, from the guy who was now on the same side of the net as him. Crabb, in the semifinals of the Manhattan Beach Open, had famously run his mouth. It did a number on Priddy, then, though he couldn’t fully understand why. He didn’t understand where all that talk was coming from.

Hadn’t all their previous interactions been cordial? Polite? Even friendly? Priddy didn’t know, at the time, that was just what Crabb does on the court. He talks trash. Doesn’t matter if you’re out of the qualifier or out of four quads with the indoor national team: You’re going to hear him.

Afterwards, Priddy broke it down.

“‘Why was I so mad?’” he wondered.

“And it was ‘Well, he showed you disrespect,’” Priddy recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “But why should I have the expectation that somebody should respect me? So it was almost really great because I let go of that expectation at all, even if I subconsciously had it. It was probably that moment, that interchange, that I let it all go.”

So when Evans buried the ball to close out the first set, and piled a little talk on top of it, Priddy didn’t mind. He’d been there before. He’d learned from it. And then he gave it right back.

“From that moment on,” Priddy said, “it was just ‘All right, now we’re in it. Let’s battle.’”

Let’s battle. If there are two words that could accurately summarize the mindset of William Reid Priddy for these past 41 years, those may be the ones to do it. He’s a self-proclaimed underdog story, but unlike a number of athletes who like to push that sometimes-false narrative, his is rather genuine. Raised on a steady diet of soccer, Priddy is the son of Ken and Sharon Priddy, who thought it was funny that, after 11 years of soccer, Priddy was going to try volleyball.

“They were like, ‘All right, we’ll just come watch. We have nothing to offer,’” Priddy said. He was athletic enough to help Mountain Pointe High in Phoenix, Arizona, to the school’s first state title, in 1995. Still, the sport was so new to the state, in just its second year as a varsity sport, that Priddy was no blue-chip prospect or can’t-miss recruit. He was still the blue-collar kid who had played mostly soccer his entire life.

It was enough, however, for LMU to offer him a spot on a team that recruited seven outside hitters and hadn’t yet developed a single All-American.

In 2000, Priddy would become that All-American. Years later, after the program was shuttered, he’d become the first volleyball player to enter the LMU Hall of Fame.

That was, in the grand scheme of his career, the easy part. At 6-foot-4, even by the standards of the early 2000s, he was undersized for an outside. Now he was set not to compete against of diamonds in the rough at LMU, but against the best in the country for a spot on the national team. It is that exact environment, though, where the kid who wasn’t the biggest, the one relegated to the “sandlot teams” growing up, the one who only got in fights with bullies because he just couldn’t see the bigger kids picking on the smaller ones, thrives.

He didn’t spurn the odds but embraced them, clutched them to his chest.  

“Nobody ever looked at me and was like ‘That guy’s going to be great.’ I was never the blue-chip guy,” Priddy said. “Now I purposefully channel that. A lot of us, we could have these mental lapses of confidence, ‘Oh man, can I do this?’ Once I learned to channel the competitiveness, how I felt about myself was no longer relevant, because a job had to be done, I gotta put this ball away.”

Oh, he would put balls away, all right. For 16 years, he’d represent the United States. He’d play in four Olympics, win a gold and a bronze. His tenure with Zenit-Kazan would be so wildly successful, in fact, that it almost felt weird, how expected it was to win.

“That was a strange feeling,” he said. It went against everything his underdog upraising had fostered.

If the expectation was to win then where did the satisfaction come from? It seemed, at times, that there was no real reward: Win and it’s what you were supposed to do; lose and what just happened?

He’s not a fan of expectations, Priddy. Steals not only a lot of the joy of playing this game but from the purpose of it all.

“I have tremendous self-belief but I don’t like expectations,” he said. “In my best years in indoor, my mental routine was do whatever I wanted to do. We could play cards on the bus and we’d be betting but there was always a moment in the locker room where it was ‘Ok, now it’s go time.’

“The shift that took place when my generation came in and with all of our coaches, it was very focused. We’re here, so let’s be here. All in. I really love that stuff.”

But expectations, from the outside, anyway, are inevitable when one has had the success Priddy has enjoyed.

Unless, of course, you switch sports. Change settings. Do something totally radical that nobody could have ever expected him to really make the Tokyo Olympics on a different surface, right?

That, in a way, is what happened when, in 2017, Priddy took to the beach.

Hacking the beach. That’s what Priddy called his strategy to transfer his indoor skillset to the beach. He gently kicks himself for the name now. He never meant it to imply there were shortcuts to success in the beach game, but optimizations.

How could he make those proverbial 10,000 hours as efficient and effective as possible, so as to rapidly expedite the improvement of his skillset to the point that Tokyo 2020 really wasn’t out of the question?

He brought an entirely new developmental strategy to the beach. He had statisticians at practice, charting serves, both location and speed. He had trainers. He had coaches ranging from Marcio Sicoli to Rich Lambourne. He fostered a community in Huntington Beach, where the training was no longer separate, just a bunch of teams meeting and winging it, to a full-on program of hundreds of reps in a compact, 90-minute training session, where teams weren’t pitted against one another, but worked alongside one another.

“There’s no shortcuts to skill acquisition,” he said. Which is how, after two years of reps reps reps reps reps, he found himself down one set to none to Evans and Doherty at the Manhattan Beach Open. A loss would leave him and Crabb in ninth. But this wasn’t the Priddy Evans would have faced two years prior. This was a different Priddy, one who had grown in abundance from the previous edition.

“I have no expectation of how people should treat me, how they should interact with me,” he said. “I don’t feel 41 in my brain, I don’t feel like a gold medalist. I don’t go into matches thinking ‘Oh, I’m a gold medalist.’ I’m super aware of my deficiencies.”

Which is why he’s able to shore them up so quickly. And with each match, those deficiencies became harder and harder to find. They came back to beat Evans and Doherty, 15-13 in the third set. Then they knocked out Tim Bomgren and Troy Field, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, and, in the finals, Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson.

In winning the Manhattan Beach Open, Priddy hadn’t hacked the beach. He had simply out-worked a lot of people on it. No learning opportunities went to waste, something he refers to as “double-black belt status.”

“When I think about volleyball, and anything, I like to channel martial arts,” he said. “The sensei did not get there thinking ‘I’m 21-0.’ Martial artists, it’s about proficiency. It’s about competence. The way I like to look at it is: ‘Here’s my end goal. This is what I think is possible for me as a player or us as a team. What are the behaviors to display, what are the feathers I need in my cap to be that player?’

“And then you work towards that. It’s kind of like a street fight. Now you’re in Manhattan, you’re playing in a match, you are who you are. It’s not like being 1-0 or 0-1 has somehow changed your proficiency, so it’s always about trying to level up to the next level. That comes not from wins and losses, you can learn from both, but it comes from ‘How good can you guys get as a team?’ That’s what’s important. It’s hard to do that when it’s your profession. I want to get to that double-black belt status.”

Not that Jose Loiola would ever let him think he has that. No, the coach of Priddy and Crabb during Manhattan Beach had them back on the sand two days later. He wasn’t full of congratulations. He didn’t take it easy.

“Nobody cares,” he told them.

Priddy loved it.

“The ultimate is when you can win but you treat wins as losses,” he said. “When you can take just as much from a win as from a loss, to me, that’s double black-belt, like legendary status. I think that’s the goal for all of us. How can we not let all of the little things go just because we won? Once that little euphoria dies down and we think we’re on top of the world, how can we look back and say ‘I could have done this better.’”

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You know what they say about plans. Some say that when God hears you making plans, he just laughs. Mike Tyson claims that everybody’s got plan, until they get punched in the face.

Eric Beranek had plans this year. He was going to get a coach. Play the year with one guy. Do it the right way, finally.

Then God chuckled, and Beranek was, proverbially, punched in the face. He began the year well enough, with Curt Toppel. Straight into main draw. But Toppel was, well, “Toppel,” Beranek said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. He said this with a laugh, because Toppel is Toppel. Full-time job. Kids. Just had enough points to make main draw, so why not go out and play?

Beranek knew, though, that Toppel wasn’t his full-time guy. Wasn’t into it like he was. So he turned to Marty Lorenz. That, too, went well enough at first. They made main draw in Austin. Played well, too. Only thing was, Beranek had a cyst on his tailbone. Didn’t tell anyone but shew wee, you should have seen that thing. Went to the hospital right after he got home, and the surgery seemed to go ok, until, an hour later, he was sitting in the bathroom, body rejecting everything, plunging into septic shock.

He spent a few more days in the hospital. Had to skip New York, and then Seattle, though the latter turned out to be a bit serendipitous. When Lorenz called Beranek to tell him he couldn’t play Seattle, Billy Kolinske phoned no more than two minutes later, asked him to play the Pottstown Rumble, a big money grass tournament just south of Philadelphia.

“I still wasn’t quite right,” he said, but he went anyway, and wouldn’t you know it, they made the finals. Won a good bit of cash, too. Maybe this year was looking up. Going to turn around, close on a high.

Somewhere, God laughed.

Maybe he knew Beranek was about to get punched in the face again.

The day before AVP Hermosa, where he was set to partner with Lorenz again, Beranek’s girlfriend broke up with him. Then salt was poured in by Dylan Maarek and Dave Palm, who knocked him out of the final round of the qualifier.

“I didn’t play two AVPs, don’t qualify, girlfriend breaks up with me, ‘I’m like, awesome! We’re back. All time low. Sweet!’” Beranek said, laughing. That’s the things about slamming into the bottom: You bounce.

And he did. He set up a practice with Corey Glave, just the two of them. He told Beranek that the player he once knew only wanted to win. He needed to become the player who expected to win.

“You gotta find that, and you gotta work super hard to get back,” he told him.

“Ok,” Beranek said. “Here we go.”

Here we go meant eighth seed in the AVP Manhattan Beach qualifier. No longer with Lorenz, Beranek was back with Kolinske, his Pottstown partner. Lorenz almost encouraged the move. He had trouble dialing in Beranek’s set in transition. Kolinske, who’s world-class at the art of transition setting, would be a better partner for him.

That’s one plan God didn’t laugh at.

Beranek was finished, for the weekend, at least, getting metaphorically punched in the face. They qualified, and then, after dropping their first match to Ed Ratledge and Rafu Rodriguez, they battled back to win a three-setter over Travis Mewhirter and Raffe Paulis. Their legs were toast. Didn’t matter. They rallied, one more time that day, to beat John Hyden and Theo Brunner. With six matches on their legs, they were moving onto Saturday.

“Holy shit,” Beranek thought. “This tournament just started.”

It would have been funny, for anyone in the stands, to see Beranek’s dad there. He’s made quite the turnaround. He’s his biggest fan now, Mr. Beranek, but a few years ago, to imagine his son competing on a Saturday at the AVP Manhattan Beach Open? No way.

He’s got his own Aerospace manufacturing business. His son was set for life. Didn’t matter if he had dropped out of OCC, dismayed by grades and volleyball. Eric had a job.

“You’re set!” he pleaded with his headstrong kid. His friends weren’t much different. When Beranek told them he wanted to play beach volleyball professionally, “they looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “They said ‘Ohhh, you want to be an actor too? You probably have a better shot at that.’ That was a funny and weird thing I struggled with.”

So his friends would laugh, and his dad would send his daily offer: Want me to help pay for trade school? Stay in the shop? Want to be a hairdresser?

Nope nope nope.

He may have dropped out of OCC, but he had his own kind of education in mind. He skipped work one day and biked down to the strand to find Holly McPeak. He asked if she knew of any coaching opportunities available, and she said no, but there’s this guy, always dressed in Pepperdine gear. Name’s Marcio Sicoli. He’d be down at 15th street tomorrow morning. Go find him. So he skipped work again, found Sicoli, and for the next four months, became the world’s most dedicated ball shagger. From 8-10, he’d be with Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, and from 10-12 he’d work with Kolinske and Casey Jennings.

He took the work he saw them doing and applied it to his own game. The results, as they do, lagged at first. Took their time to come in. But a main draw in Seattle of 2018 led to Hermosa, and Manhattan, and Chicago.

And then he made plans for the 2019 season, which is when everything began to dissolve – crystallizing only when Kolinske, in a poetic reunion, needed a partner. Then came Manhattan, qualifying, stunning one team after the next: Hyden and Brunner, Avery Drost and Chase Frishman, Ricardo Santos and Sean Rosenthal, Chaim Schalk and Jeremy Casebeer.

And now they were in the semifinals?

Eric Beranek?

The kid who had to trick his way onto the court at OCC, telling the starter that the coach wanted him in instead, only for the coach to notice, one play in, and yank him again?

That kid?

Oh, yes. He had made the switch Glave wanted. Eric Beranek expected to win.

“It was ‘We need to win. How are we going to win?’” Beranek said. “We were playing good ball. I’m playing good volleyball against these guys. We can beat them.”

He’s able to sit back, relax now. Now that the legs aren’t feeling like jello and the adrenaline has reduced his heart rate to somewhat normal. He didn’t know when his time would come, only that it would.

He simply had to be ready.

“Everyone’s timeline is different,” he said. “Some people will say ‘I’m this age, so I should be doing this at this age because he is,’ but there is a lot of those pressures and I think it’s easy for younger guys, girls, to look up to people, the superstars who come out of college and are placing super high. There’s a lot of that. There are girls my age that are in contention to winning tournaments. I thought ‘Man, when is that going to come? Am I going to be 25? 26?’

“I didn’t really know, and I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to do that. I just said it’s going to come when it’s going to come. Everyone has their own timeline, so I’m just going to keep grinding.”

Keep grinding.

The one plan God doesn’t laugh at.

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In 2016, Brandie Wilkerson saw everything there was to see, up close and in person. She saw the ceremonies. The athletes, both beach volleyball and otherwise. She practiced on stadium court with the women. She practiced against the men. An alternate for the 2016 Rio Games with Melissa Humana-Paredes, she did just about everything all of the other beach players were there to do, save for compete and one other element of being a participant of the Olympic Games.

She didn’t go to the Athletes Village.

Not yet.

“A part of me didn’t want to stay in the village, because I wanted to earn it,” Wilkerson said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “So I was like ‘I’m going to get there myself one day.’”

Get there herself? Wasn’t this the 24-year-old who had only picked up beach volleyball less than five years ago? The one who was almost as likely to play rugby in college as she was volleyball? Anybody who hadn’t yet heard of Wilkerson may have been able to take that comment and shelve it into the legions of other players who make similar proclamations but don’t follow up. Yet this was not an athlete who belongs in a class of anyone else.

Brandie Wilkerson is a class of her own.

This was the daughter of Herb and Stephanie Wilkerson, the former an NBA draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers and, the latter a runner for Switzerland. A five-sport athlete in high school, winner of four volleyball championships and one in rugby.

What would be one more sport for her?

Actually, it was, shockingly, to Wilkerson, a bit difficult, though that only raised the appeal. For so long, sports had come so easy. Here was one that presented a worthy challenge.

“Playing beach, it was ‘Whoa, there’s a lot more going on here,’” Wilkerson said. “I was attracted to that challenge, and with any competitive athlete, you just want to prove to yourself that you can do it.”

She hit the NORCECAs first, 19 in all from 2013-2016, adding 15 FIVBs, making seven main draws.

And then the breakthrough.

The team for whom her and Humana-Paredes had been the alternates in Rio, Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley, split. Pavan grabbed Humana-Paredes. Bansley, who had been named the best defender in the world, scooped Wilkerson.

Gone were the qualifiers and in was an entire season of top-10 finishes, including a fifth at the Vienna Major. Her prize money tripled, her world ranking improving 90 spots, to 20th.

“I just kept raising the bar and I looked up and it’s ‘Oh, I’m doing this full-time right now.’ I was pretty surprised two years ago, when I was stable, I never thought I would be here, and that’s kind of my whole theme with beach volleyball is that I never pictured myself here,” Wilkerson said. “I just knew I wanted to challenge myself and accomplish a goal and it was little goal, little goal, little goal, and the next thing you know, your goal is the Olympics, and it’s like ‘When did we get here?’”

By the end of 2018, her and Bansley would be ranked No. 1 in the world. They’d win tournaments in Itapema, San Jose, Las Vegas, Chetumal. Wilkerson would be named the best blocker in the world.

Suddenly a goal of reaching the Olympics that could have seemed like a stretch at first now looks more like an inevitability.

“I feel extremely blessed,” she said. “I’ve had times where I was debating switching countries because it’s so difficult to be successful in Canada and I had so many other interests I could make a living doing. I wanted to impact the environment, and I can’t do that just playing sports. But I feel like if I have an opportunity to be young and physical and have those chances so many people don’t, I’d be silly to give it up and grow old doing the other things.”

There’s only one way into the Athletes’ Village, after all, and it isn’t by doing other things. But still, there is work to be done, an entire season to be played before Tokyo 2020.

“I haven’t proven myself consistently, which I think is really the epitome of being the best,” she said. “I think I can get there, and that’s my goal. Watching these people dominate and seeing that it can be done, it’s like ‘Well I want to do that.’”

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Anna Collier is sitting on Tri Bourne’s couch, and she is – if you can believe it – relaxed. She hasn’t been to the beach in months, aside from when she rides her bike down the strand. She’s getting facials, going to the spa. Reconnecting with old friends. Getting fit.

“Just call me Soccer Mom Anna Collier,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

For anyone who knows, or has known, Collier, this is a near-impossible thing to imagine. For the past four decades, Collier hasn’t had time for facials. Trips to the spa.

Relax?

How can you relax when your day job, for just shy of 40 years, included acting as the Athletic Director, compliance office and volleyball coach at Santa Monica College? Most coaches take the summers off, do they? Not Collier. That was for FIVB, for AVP, for juniors. Non-stop the coaching cycle went, around and around and around.

Until, on June 6, it came to a halt. Collier announced her retirement from USC, where she had built not only a beach program, the first of its kind, but had played an integral role in building beach volleyball as a sport at the collegiate level.

“It was time,” she said.

There is never any one reason for such a monumental decision in one’s life. But as those reasons accumulate over the course of 40-plus years, sometimes it takes one gentle nudge, from a former protégé, to tip you over the edge. That came, in part, from Misty May-Treanor, whom Collier had once coached.

“When,” May-Treanor wondered, “are you going to have won enough?”

On Collier’s fingers, figuratively, were seven National Championship rings at USC. On her resume were 206 wins and only 38 losses at SC. To her name is virtually every coaching record one can imagine: 62 consecutive wins, an NCAA recore; two-time Coach of the Year; first head coach to reach 100 wins, and 150, and 200. Enough victories over rival UCLA for the rest of the university to be happy.

The more Collier thought about it, the easier it became for her to admit, both to herself and to the public, that “it’s time.”

And for the first time in as long as she could remember, she slept like a rock. No longer was her mind whirring over recruiting – Who to call, when to call them, who to look for – or how she could tinker with this lineup or that partnership.

Her biggest decision, suddenly, was: “Do I take my bike this way, or that way?”

And she loves it.

“I haven’t had a summer off in a long time,” she said. “This is literally the first summer I’ve had off in four decades.”

What she leaves behind is a legacy and coaching epoch that will be labeled as iconic. She, alongside similarly Hall of Fame caliber coaches such as Nina Matthies at Pepperdine, helped usher in an entirely new era of beach volleyball, growing the college game into the fastest growing sport in NCAA history.

And it all began with crashing a golf cart.

In 2013, Sara Hughes was one of the best indoor players in the country. A four-year starter at Mater Dei, an athletics powerhouse in Santa Ana, Hughes was named team MVP in three consecutive seasons, the Female Athlete of the Year. All-American. All-League. All-Everything.

And Anna Collier had a shot.

Hughes had grown up playing sand in Huntington Beach. When she was touring schools, she made a firm rule that it needed to have a beach program, which less than 20 in the country did when she was making her decision.

USC had launched its program in 2012, with only one scholarship athlete, Geena Urango. Collier had no idea if she could even offer any others, but this was Sara Hughes. She’d find a way. There was only one problem: Her recruiting trip was a complete disaster.

Collier loaded up Hughes and her father, Rory, in then-indoor coach Mick Haley’s golf cart, and off they went, driving around campus, which Collier was hardly any more familiar with than Hughes was. She was still working at Santa Monica College at the time, and hadn’t had much availability to learn USC’s campus outside of anything volleyball related.

So they toured, and Collier “just made stuff up,” about the buildings, making a mental footnote to actually learn a thing or two. But she can’t make up the next part, about Collier coming to a structure of arches on campus – and crashing the golf cart directly into them.   

“She walks out the door and I look to my assistant and I’m like ‘We’ll never see her again. That’s it. We’re done,’” Collier said. She’s able to laugh about it now, because, as you know by this point, Hughes became a Trojan, launching one of the most dominant four years in all of college sports.

And it wasn’t just Hughes. With five more scholarships than had been originally budgeted, a rapid increase thanks to “an anonymous tip,” Collier said, laughing a surreptitious laugh, she locked in Kelly Claes, Allie Wheeler, Nicolette Martin.

Born was the indomitable power that would become USC beach volleyball.

Now that power is in the hands of Dain Blanton, who coached under Collier for four seasons as the volunteer assistant. Collier knows USC is in good hands. Blanton’s the right man for the job.

As for her?

She’s already had requests to coach at the professional level. Her answer every time: I’m not doing anything. Not this summer, at least. She’s enjoying the Summer of Anna Collier. She likes being Soccer Mom Anna Collier, where she gets to wake up and wonder: Do I go left on the strand, or right?

For the first time in more than 40 years, it really doesn’t matter.

“This,” she said, “is sweet.”

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It almost didn’t happen. The Cinderella run. The upsets over the 16, the four, the eight, the 22. The AVP semifinal that would be host to the highest seed – Q47 – in the tour’s history. The 8-3 jump Zana Muno and Crissy Jones would get on top-seeded Betsi Flint and Emily Day, on stadium court, on Sunday.

All of that was nearly lost before any of it even got started.

Towards the end of Jones’ and Muno’s fourth and final qualifier match for AVP Hermosa, Jones felt a cramp coming on, compiled by an awkward landing on her knee. They finished the match, of course. By that point, they’d come to far not to, and it was over quickly enough: 21-13, 21-7 over Lara Dykstra and Kim Smith, who were battling through injuries of their own.

In that moment, they had done everything they had come to do. They qualified on the AVP Tour, something that eluded them in their only other professional event, in Seattle, where they fell in the third round to Janelle Allen and Kerri Schuh.

They cried on the way home to the airport that weekend.

“At the same time,” Jones said, “we were both really unsure with what we were capable of doing.”

Both of them had proven more than talented enough indoors – Muno at UCLA, Jones at Washington -- to command a contract, with a salary, validation, stability, overseas. Their beach journey, at that point, had been the exact antithesis. Twice they had bought flights, booked hotels for qualifiers. Twice, in Austin and then New York, they didn’t get into the qualifier because of a lack of points.

“I was like ‘Oh my God, this is so hard,’” Muno said, laughing.

She’s able to laugh now, in retrospect. It’s easier to look in the rearview and smile when there’s a third place in that same rearview.

They drew lessons from each, Seattle in particular. For four years at UCLA, Muno had been the favorite in virtually every match she played, finishing a brilliant career with two national championships, scoring the final point of the match that would seal the second. Now the role was flipped: Muno and Jones, a standout on court one at Cal Poly, which also enjoyed a historic season, were the underdogs, a role they embraced.

“We came into Hermosa and said ‘Ok, this is our time to attack it and we’re going to go through a qualifier again and just stay present with every match we played,’” Jones said.

So when they qualified, and there would be no teary exits, that was it.

“Once you’re out of the qualifier you can breathe, you’re so free,” Muno said. “Once you’re in the main draw, now you have nothing to lose, you can play free.”

Problem was: They almost didn’t play at all. Jones called Muno on their way to the site, told her that her knee was hurting pretty bad. She might not be able to do it. Muno, on the other end of the phone, put on a supportive look: “I’m like, ‘It’s ok, you gotta take care of yourself,’” she said, laughing – always laughing – again.

Meanwhile: “I’m sobbing.”

They figured they’d give it a try anyway. They told AVP tournament director Jeff Conover to pull them off of stadium court. Nobody wants to see a mid-match forfeit. So he put them on court five, and against Katie Spieler and Delaney Knudsen, a team they had beaten weeks earlier in the Santa Barbara Open, they lost 21-14, 21-10.

It was the best thing that could have happened.

In a 24-team draw, as Hermosa is, if you win your first round, you play almost immediately after. But if you win your first and lose your second, on minimal rest, you wind up in the exact same spot as if you had lost your first. So instead of playing a second match on hardly any rest, Muno and Jones were able to take six, seven hours off their feet. Put the legs up. Recover, finally.

And then, match by match, the story of the weekend was written: a 15-10 third-set win over fellow collegians Morgan Martin (Hawai’i) and Iya Lindahl (Cal), a sweep of Meghan Mannari and Taylor Nyquist, another sweep of Brittany Hochevar and Maria Clara Salgado, a three-set win over Kim DiCello and Kelly Reeves, a thrilling three-set quarterfinal over wunderkinds Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft.

With each win, Jones would wonder to herself, “Is this really happening?”

“I think the experience in general, because it was so unexpected, and because of all the adversity we had gone through to get there, we were so grateful for everything that happened and seeing all these people who had been kicking butt on tour, just giving it our best shot,” Jones said.

They did that Sunday, too, but in their eleventh match, their legs finally gave in. The 8-3 lead they established on Flint and Day was flipped into a 14-21 loss. A valiant comeback in the second was thwarted. Flint and Day would go on to win. Muno would call her brother, JJ, a minor league baseball player who is currently in the Chicago White Sox system.

He asked her what happened, and she said her legs just didn’t have anything left in the tank, a feeling he’s more than familiar with.

Next week, though, in Manhattan Beach, they’ll have four less matches on their legs. After winning an AVP Next Gold Series in Colorado, they earned a direct main draw berth. Next week, too, they’ll have something they didn’t before: Validation. The confirmation that, yes, they can do this.

They can compete with the players by whom they’re still star-struck. More than that: They can beat them.

“We knew that when we got the opportunity we could hang and play with the best of them,” Muno said. “I think we just needed the opportunity. We were just trying to be as prepared as we could for [Manhattan] and our breakthrough came a little sooner than we expected.”

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The first notes on the Book of Andy Benesh came a little less than a year ago, about a six-hour drive north of Hermosa Beach. Adam Roberts was there to watch Benesh’s second-round match. Playing in just his second AVP qualifier, with little points to his name, Benesh came in as the 33 seed, meaning, after a pigtail round, he, with Cole Fiers, had top-seeded Myles Muagututia and Kyle Friend.

“I saw him serve a ball, get to the net, get four blocks in a row, get an ace, and I was like ‘Who is this kid? Let’s see if he can set,’” Adam Roberts, Benesh’s current partner, said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Standard big guy stuff, right? They serve Cole and he puts up a juicy set and I’m like ‘Man! What is his name? What is his number? I’m gonna tuck that one away.’”

While Roberts had it tucked away, Benesh quietly made a few main draws. He wound up qualifying in San Francisco, upsetting Friend and Muagututia, 24-22, 21-17, and winning his next two matches. Then he and Fiers did it again in Hermosa.

It was an auspicious start for Benesh’s beach career, one that really only began in earnest a few months prior to San Francisco. He had been an indoor kid, for the most part, growing up. Raised in Palos Verdes, he was named First Team All-American, put on the VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 list, All-Area, All-League, All-Everything. Those accolades earned him a spot as a middle at USC, where he started all 26 matches as a freshman, falling just shy of the Trojan hitting percentage record.

So went the next three years at USC, where he continued to excel, eventually being named captain as a senior. But the only beach experience he had was messing around on the fours courts at 16th street.

Which brings us back to Roberts’ key question for all big men: Could the kid set?

Prior to AVP Huntington, Roberts set up a four-team practice, Benesh being one of the teams. There it was confirmed: Benesh could indeed put up a set, and after both failed to qualify in Huntington, both were looking for partners in Austin.

Roberts turned back the clock to that day in San Francisco.

Yes, Benesh would be quite the option.  

Their first two tournaments, though, they fell short. A few quirky plays in the third set of the final round of the AVP Austin qualifier kept them out of main draw. Then came a first-round exit in New York and all of a sudden doubt began creeping in.

“You look at it, and it’s ‘Are we a good team or are we not?’ We’re kinda looking at it like ‘Maybe we’re not that good’ but I was thinking ‘Man, I really think we’re a good team,’” Roberts said. “Even if you look at the results, losing the round to get in, lose first round, lose first round, maybe they’re not that good, but I just kept thinking we really have something special here. To me, it doesn’t make sense when guys make lateral moves mid-season. I just kept thinking: I think we’re a good team, I think we’re a good team.”

The past few months, they’ve proved as much. They flew from New York and directly into an AVP Next Gold Series in Colorado, winning the tournament and, subsequently, a bid into the Manhattan Beach Open main draw.

In Hermosa, they qualified for their first main draw, marking Benesh’s first in a year and Roberts’ first since Chicago of 2017 with – here’s a good beach volleyball trivia tidbit – Mark Burik.

They were ecstatic, to be sure. But not satisfied. Not yet.

“I texted Adam Thursday night and said ‘We’re not done yet,’” Benesh said. “I’m not just here to go 0-2 in the main draw. I’m trying to win some matches, see if we can compete at that level.”

Oh, they competed all right. They came out and won their first main draw match 21-17, 21-11, setting up a match with fourth-seeded Billy Allen and Stafford Slick. And on a packed stadium court, they delivered the first major upset of the tournament, 23-21, 18-21, 15-11. A day later, they’d deliver another, eliminating seventh-seeded Chase Frishman and Avery Drost, 15-21, 21-18, 15-13.

“Obviously coming out of the qualifier we don’t have that opportunity every tournament,” Benesh said of upsetting main draw teams. “So when you do you want to take advantage of it. I don’t think there was a team in the draw that we were intimidated by.”

They’ll be back in the main draw again, in Manhattan Beach, now with a seventh-place finish under their belt, and a God-blessed day of rest prior to the tournament.  

“It’s nice. It’s very nice,” Roberts said. “It kind of gives us a chance to really focus on a main draw. That extra day of rest is going to be very useful.”   

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It was an otherwise innocuous Monday when the Canadian beach volleyball community reached and unleashed its peak fury which, because it’s Canada, really wasn’t much fury at all. Tri Bourne had put up a picture of Chaim Schalk.

No, no. Not just Chaim Schalk.

“American Chaim Schalk,” Bourne put on Instagram.

For nearly a decade, Schalk had represented Canada on the beach. He had been an Olympian for Canada on the beach. He had made international podiums for Canada on the beach. Raised in Red Deer, Alberta, with a habit of punctuating sentences with ‘eh?’ and a humility and affability that you just don’t find much in Southern California, Schalk was, by all accounts, Canadian to the core.

So what was he doing, on Monday, May 6, wearing a USA Volleyball shirt, taking pictures, doing promos, looking like, well, “American Chaim Schalk”?

Just running out the clock until his international volleyball purgatory is over.

“I got a lot of messages on that,” Schalk said of Bourne’s post of Schalk at USA Volleyball’s Media Day. “A lot of people still didn’t know. They were like ‘What does this mean? Why do you have a USA shirt on? This is messed up!’”

At the end of the 2017 FIVB season, Schalk announced that he would be making the transfer from Canada to the United States, competing for the Yanks instead of the Leafs. It meant a hefty fee and a two-year hiatus on the world tour, but it also meant access to USAV’s resources, the ability to live and compete and train full-time in Southern California, the opportunity to represent arguably the biggest powerhouse beach volleyball nation on the planet.

And, while nobody wants to lose two years of their international careers, in what could be their prime, the timing was perfect for Schalk. In May, Schalk’s wife, Lane Carico, also a professional beach player, gave birth to their daughter, Koa. With Schalk unable to compete around the globe, he’s been able to spend time at home, helping with Carico, helping with Koa, witnessing the miraculous growth that is the first few months of a child’s life.

“It’s been a blur the past couple months with the baby, just helping out as much as I can. It’s been so nice to be home and help out with Lane and it’s been so nice with the AVPs because I take off Thursday and then I’ll be back Sunday night,” Schalk said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It’s been a perfect time to have a kid because I haven’t felt like I needed to be away and if I was away for a couple weeks that would be a little tougher for right now.”

This is not to say that Schalk doesn’t get antsy. He watched World Championships in Hamburg. He watched the Gstaad Major. They’re his two favorite stops on tour. He saw the Instagram posts, the ones athletes just cannot help but putting up – cups of coffee in the mountains, the stunning green of Gstaad, the mountain biking, the crowds, the stadiums.

“Everyone just has to do their water photo and the morning coffee, ‘Not a bad place to wake up to,’” Schalk said, shaking his head. “C’mon guys! That makes me itch a little bit.”

In November, he can alas scratch that itch, getting back out onto the world tour, representing a different set of colors, a different flag, a different federation. So, Canada beach volleyball nation, soon enough, you’ll have to accept this simple reality.

He’s not just Chaim Schalk anymore. He’s American Chaim Schalk.  

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The most difficult transition of Ryan Doherty’s new partnership, from John Hyden to Miles Evans, might not be the difference in playing style or personality or skill level or experience or energy level or setting preferences or serving or any of the other obvious tangibles that can make partner switching a sometimes-difficult ordeal.

It might just be the high five.

We joke, kind of, sort of. Because we’re also serious, kind of, sort of.

“Our first couple times practicing, Miles kept coming in for the high five, and Hyden – we never high-fived,” Doherty said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Miles would get an ace and I’d point and he’d be right behind me saying ‘Yeah! Let’s do this!’

“This is 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning so I gotta get used to this puppy dog energy. I’m looking forward to it.”

This is the next chapter of Ryan Doherty’s career, one that is nominated for the unofficial award of Most Likely to be Made Into a Movie. Since moving on from a professional baseball career that was beginning to flat line and making the cross-country trek to California, Doherty’s path was been wonderfully circuitous and, by all means, remarkably successful. His list of partners, despite not having a volleyball background, aside from pickup games against high schoolers in South Carolina and a few Great American Volleyball events in New Jersey, is a who’s who of the best American defenders of this generation.

“I have been lucky enough to play with a murderer’s row of partners, some of the best defenders in the U.S,” Doherty said. “It started with Casey Patterson, Todd Rogers, Nick Lucena, Johnny Mayer, John Hyden, back to John Mayer, Billy Allen, and then John Hyden. I was always the younger one. As someone who tries to teach and I think I know a little bit about the game I think it might be fun to help out Miles a little bit, see if I can maybe guide him a little bit.”

That group has combined for more than 150 professional wins and three Olympic appearances, five if you include Hyden’s two Olympics with the indoor national team in 1996 and 2000. That level was never Doherty’s goal. He’s not much of a goal guy. He’s always, simply, wanted to become the best beach volleyball player he can be, a path on which he’s still traveling. Now he’s playing a different role, from student and sponge, soaking up the knowledge of those who have been able to dispense it, to doing the same for the next generation of defenders, one who has a legitimate shot at making that Olympic level in the years to come.

“He could easily move into that great category,” Bourne said, a sentiment with which Doherty agreed.    

“I’ve seen Miles play for a couple years,” Doherty said. “He’s getting better and better and I don’t know how he’s going to try to turn that corner in terms of being a good player into a great one, one of the top players in the country. His skills are there, it’s just the experience, the comfort of being at the top level. I think with his natural abilities being really physical and my calm demeanor being able to bring him down when he gets a little too ramped up, I think that might help us out a bit.”

The change, in general, will likely help them both. Evans hasn’t competed in an AVP main draw since Huntington of 2016. Now, he’s straight into main with Doherty. Doherty, meanwhile, admitted this year hasn’t been his finest. Sometimes a change, not begat out of ill will but out of a need for something different, is exactly the thing.

“I haven’t been playing at a very high level, so it’s one of those things where if you’re not playing really well and you’re kinda miserable, what’s the point?” Doherty said. “Let’s try to do something different, mix it up. I have no ill feelings. I hope [Hyden] keeps dominating till he’s 50 years old. I figured I’d try something new.”

And so, in Evans, he is. And the next chapter of the fascinating book that is the life of Ryan Doherty begins.  

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