December 24, 2023
It’s September. I’m sitting on my deck back home, which in this case means Hampstead, Maryland. There’s grass here. And trees. And quiet.
I say quiet, not silence, because the place is always humming with life — real life, not the kind of life you get in Hermosa Beach, where the sounds are cars and planes and music from the neighbors and people talking loudly on phones. Here, the sounds are of birds and bugs, of crickets singing their songs and creeks slipping through the woods past my backyard.
It is, in other words, the perfect place to think, a place replete as much with nostalgia as it is relaxation and reflection. Earlier, I was chatting with my parents. Mom filled me on all the town’s latest: Who’s getting married, who’s having a kid and when the due date is, where this person is moving and that person is now working. We talked about my niece, Ryleigh, all of 2 years old now, an indefatigable blonde who, somehow, is running and talking and can identify animals, from an eagle to an octopus. It’s wild, as is the simple fact that my little brother has a child, and so do I, and now our children — cousins! — are kind of friends. As much of friends as toddlers and infants can be, anyway.
All of that might seem insignificant to most. These are normal conversations for adults to have with their parents. Siblings soon have kids of their own, and their kids become friends. That’s life. But what was significant about that conversation, and every other one I will have over the next few days, is a topic that never came up: volleyball.
I smiled a bit when I noticed that. The sport that I have been so obsessive about these past five years — and still am — took a back seat to the bigger things in life. It took on a different role, the conduit for a season that can be summed up in the word that continued to find itself on the tip of my tongue this year: Special.
Truth be told, I didn’t know what this year would look like this past spring, though it wasn’t difficult to predict that it would be different than the previous four in what can generously be labeled as my career.
My son was due in mid-April. Would I want to continue playing after he was born? To travel for weeks at a time, away from my wife and newborn? I didn’t know.
Traveling was pain enough when it was just Delaney and me. So I looked at the schedule and made a vow to play as much as I could prior to mid-April, which meant more CBVAs in two months than I had played in the previous two years. I won the first, with Marcus Carvalhaes, and then won the second, with Wyatt Harrison. Kent Steffes dropped by that second tournament, watching his little apprentice run around aimlessly split-blocking.
“Why’s he playing in this?” he asked Delaney during pool play.
“Because he wants to.”
I did want to. I also wanted to play with Wyatt, a kid I’d long had my eye on, a kid I knew had big-eague potential. It would be fun, because playing tournaments is always fun. Winning is fun, too. And it was as fun as losing is awful.
Just a few weeks later, I lost in the first round of the Miami qualifier with JM Plummer. Within minutes of getting knocked out, I was on the phone with Delta, changing my flight, wondering myself the same thing Kent asked my wife in Santa Monica: Why am I playing this?
“Maybe that’s it,” I texted Delaney once I arrived at the airport. “Maybe I’m done.”
It was the first time I’d legitimately considered it.
Losing in a qualifier is not unlike waking up hung over. You feel awful. You don’t want to show your face in public. You vow to never do it again. But a day passes. Maybe two. The pain subsides. You laugh about the silly errors you made, about how deathly serious you took it. You remember the fun.
You go right back to the bottle.
Which is more or less exactly what I did.
New Orleans was next on the schedule. My son was due the Monday after. I told JM I wasn’t interested in playing the qualifier. I’d only go if I were straight into the main draw, and, just as we were in Miami, we were on the cusp, either the last team in or the first team out.
I did the math: First team out.
But while doing the math, an intriguing solution to my qualifier conundrum presented itself: Avery Drost wasn’t signed up. We’d have enough points to be in. Way in. We’d be the 10 seed. A few hours before the registration deadline, I called him, asked if he’d want to play. We’d been decent friends for a long time, tightly bound through our love and subsequent sorrow over the loss of Eric Zaun. We’d chatted on a number of occasions about playing together; it just hadn’t happened yet. He was in. Psyched. So long as we didn’t boot Phil Dalhausser and John Sutton into the qualifier, we were good to go.
The deadline came and passed and Phil and Sutton were safely in the main.
We had three days to build a team.
It was easy with Avery. Fun. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. If he ever fails, it will never be due to a lack of effort or reps, and there’s a peaceful solace in that. We ran a two-and-a-half-hour session with Mark Burik, played a few practice matches, flew to New Orleans, played a few more. Maybe we were ready, maybe we weren’t.
It sure as hell was fun, building that shotgun team.
What wasn’t fun was our first set, a 15-21 debacle against Bill Kolinske and Hagen Smith. The most unsettling part of that first set was that Avery played, both on paper and in real life, a perfect set. He hit north of .900, served well and dug a few balls. He was as supportive as a partner can be, picking me up in all the right ways.
And we still lost by six.
Such was not the case in the second. I rediscovered how to play volleyball, Avery continued being his perfect self. To three we went. We trailed that entire third set — 2-3, 4-6, 9-11, 12-13. We were never out of it — it is difficult to truly be out of a match when your partner is hitting .900 or better — but we were never in control, either. We hung in long enough to earn a few points and flip the script. We were leading, up 17-16, with me serving. Avery asked if I wanted a time out to draw up a play, come up with a strategy.
“No,” I told him, and where I found this well of confidence, I’m not entirely sure, “I think we’ll just win it right now.”
His look was one of amusement, surprise, and maybe a touch of bewilderment, but not a trace of disbelief. I’ll always love him for that. He went to the net so I could rip my serve, and rip I did, a hooking slider with pace that caught Kolinske high. He shanked it onto the pole holding up the net.
It was my first win over Kolinske, who’d had my number more than any other player in the world up to that point. It was fun, winning, but beyond that, I had forgotten how dang fun it was to build a team, to play with someone new, to learn their tics and habits and triggers. I had played the previous two years mostly with one person each year — Adam Roberts and JM Plummer — which is what you should do if you’re to take this game seriously.
But in two days’ time, when Austin was due to make his appearance into the world, I didn’t know how much more I’d be playing at all.
It begged the question: Should I continue taking this game serious?
Or should I just have a riot of a good time?
Plato is credited with saying that you learn more about a man in an hour of play than you do in a year of conversation.
I’m a firm believer in that.
You find out, in a hurry, who they are when things are going well and, far more telling, how they respond to adversity. What’s it like when the score is 12-13 in the third and your partner is getting served? Or, maybe more indicative of their character, what’s he like when you’re getting the heat? How are they reacting when you’re not playing well? Supportive or not? Patient or quick to blame? What’re they like when we win? Lose? How do they show up to practice? On time or not? Focused or not? What’re their goals, dreams, big aspirations, if they have any at all? Does what they say align with what they do? What’s their relationship with their family? Who do they surround themselves with?
The list goes on, and through play, you learn all of this in mere hours. There are few platforms more vulnerable than sports, especially one where there is no sub if you’re playing poorly. Everything is so exposed, so quickly, all the time.
Don’t believe me? Look at my list of partners this year: 11 partners (14 if you include a fours tournament in Florida) in 19 tournaments. That’s not to say that this was the plan. Far from it. I had planned to play another year with JM, who in 2022 helped me to my most successful year as a player, finishing with a career-high fifth in Central Florida. We even signed a year-long apparel deal as a team.
But playing New Orleans with Avery reminded me how much dang fun it is to play with new people, and when Austin was born two days after we took seventh in New Orleans, I sought more of that.
Would I have had a better season if I stuck with JM or Jake Urrutia for the whole year, or if Avery hadn’t dumped me for some bum named Phil? A million times yes. Is that what I really wanted, when I took the time to think about it? No. Would I win an AVP this way? No. Did I really care to, in this particular chapter of my life? Also no, not really, although it would be nice, in the same way that hitting the lottery would be nice — all the rewards without the extraordinary amount of work that is required of accomplishing something only the elite get to do.
This began serendipitously, with that spontaneous trip to New Orleans, which provided the bedrock for the most fun and special year to date.
It wasn’t anything on the court that made New Orleans such a memorable tournament, but all of the fun moments off it. When you play with someone, you don’t just play with them. You share hotels with them, travel with them. Sometimes you get stranded in a hotel for hours and hours because of a pop-up hurricane, so you watch a Lakers game, FaceTime each other’s family, talk life and faith and whatever else may come up.
You learn, as Plato so presciently said, more about them than you would in a year’s worth of dinners and lunch conversations.
I learned, for example, that Avery is not just a devout Christian — he’s also a devout Lakers fan. This made me, someone who never had an NBA team — the Bullets were disbanded before I was born, and I have a deep loathing for Washington sports, so the Wizards are out — a Lakers fan, for no other reason than because Avery was. After Austin was born, I’d send Avery a text every Lakers game, with Austin passed out on my chest. This fandom led to me telling people, jokingly — sometimes they did not get the joke — that I named my son after Austin Reaves, LA’s surprisingly gifted shooting guard who just signed a monster deal after his scintillating run through the playoffs.
Each tournament presented something similar, a deeper manner in which to bond with my partners not just as playing partners, but good friends.
A month later in Huntington Beach, Sam Schachter, one of the best defenders on the continent, played his first AVP with me. He and his girlfriend — now fiancé — Julie Gordon, stayed in our guest room, putting up with Austin’s 3 a.m. temper tantrums and blowout diapers with nary a complaint. Within a day, I knew that, had Sam and I grown up in the same neighborhood or town, we’d have been close friends. Our thoughts on the court were in sync to the point that we’d often finish each other’s sentences at practice and in our three matches.
Like Avery, he was an incredible partner. He took accountability to a new level, apologizing profusely after we lost in the final round of the qualifier, and then again in a heartfelt, handwritten thank you note to me and Delaney, which he signed with “PS: Sorry I suck at volleyball.”
He, of course, does not suck at volleyball. He just swept Andy Benesh and Miles Partain and finished second in the continental championships.
Like Avery, I am now Sam’s biggest fan, and I hope beyond all hope he and Dan Dearing qualify for the Paris Olympic Games.
Unlike Avery and Sam, I had known JD Hamilton, my partner for AVP Virginia Beach and, later, Hermosa, for longer than I’ve played beach volleyball. As I detailed in a long and emotional story on JD, we’ve been close friends for years, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different — JD a redneck from an impoverished and broken family in Mobile, me a firmly middle-class kid from rural Maryland with a nuclear, loving family. I’d made a promise to JD on a hunting trip in February that I’d run a tournament with him.
That promise came to fruition in Virginia Beach.
Truth be told, I didn’t expect the third-place we took that tournament. Didn’t expect the main-draw ticket to Hermosa Beach that came with it. But I do not possess a single more enduring volleyball memory than hugging JD after we won our quarterfinal in Virginia, securing his first main draw in a high-level AVP, just as there are few more enduring memories than when we upset Dave Palm and Rafu Rodriguez, then Chase Frishman and Bill Kolinske, a month later in Hermosa Beach.
In those two tournaments, we were able to put JD’s career at peace. He’ll continue to play, but no longer will he be haunted by the specter of the main draw. While I had known JD for eight years, competing on a different stage still revealed so much more. When we were down big to Chase Budinger and Miles Evans, to the point that we both knew our tournament was over, JD put his hand on my knee during a timeout and said “No matter what, man, I love you, and I’m so grateful for this moment, and our friendship.”
It’s a friendship that has really only known ups. Our wives are now friends. Soon, our sons will be, too. I can’t remember a single argument we’ve ever had. In a sport rife with jealousy and envy, JD never once expressed either of those toxic traits as my career blossomed and his remained stagnant, stuck in the final round of qualifiers. The more success I had, the harder he rooted for me.
When I qualified for my first main draw in 2018, who texted me at 10:25 p.m., minutes after the results posted online, but JD Hamilton. After some four-letter words he used in the most affectionate of ways, he texted, saying “Call me right now. I’m really happy for you, genuinely. I’ll be watching you tomorrow. No matter what your gonna get to learn and grow and hey maybe you pull off something crazy. Good luck. Your chasing of the dream is paying off.”
Five years later, so did his.
Not every tournament had such spectacular moments in store, of course. But here we must recall Plato, and where and how we learn most about people. I played the most random two tournaments in Navarre, Florida, with Caleb Kwekel, a talented 21-year-old I’d played against several times but had never really gotten to know. I flew to Tampa to train with him for a few days before we competed, and there I got to see his house, his hometown, got to learn about his vision for life and what he wants out of this sport.
He was different, as it so often goes, than what I had expected.
He’s into real estate and installs epoxy floors, following in his dad’s footsteps. He trains like a madman, in the court in his backyard and in the gym he built and funded himself in his garage. But he isn’t the volleyball nerd I expected. He’s far more well-rounded, balanced, with volleyball much further down his list of priorities than I’d anticipated, given how good he is at such a young age.
You won’t hear a single curse word uttered out of his mouth, and to my knowledge, he doesn’t drink a drop, much less use any drugs. Which made Navarre, and the tournament at Juana’s, a bar with cheap drinks and a more than healthy dose of cannabis to go around, an interesting scene for Caleb. At dinner one night, most of the group was either drinking or smoking or both, and before anyone ate a bite, Caleb quietly and politely asked if anybody would mind if he said a prayer.
I loved that.
I don’t know many 21-year-olds who’d have the courage to do that, to be the different one in the room, but I came away remarkably impressed with Caleb as a human being, and his ability to remain unwavering in how he lives his life without impressing it upon anyone else.
That weekend was a special one. I hadn’t been back to Navarre since I left eight years prior. Navarre is where I discovered the game, where a tightly-knit community took me under their wing and supported me as much as a community can. When I returned, it was like coming home, where so much can change and, at the same time, nothing can change. There were all of my closest friends from another life: Uncle PJ and Aunt Michelle, Brandon Norwood and Jason McDaniel and Rebecca Haytack and Carl Meade and and so many others.
And Judd Smith.
He’s as proud of me as if he were my own father, Judd. In a volleyball sense, he sort of is, for he’s the first one to take the time to teach me, in his own streetball kind of way, how to play. Taught me how to hit a high line and a cut shot, how to hand set and, vitally, how to practice on my own, a habit he fostered by leaving me his bag of ancient Spaldings when he couldn’t help me out himself. Like everyone else from Navarre, I hadn’t seen much of Judd in those eight years since I moved, but nary was the occasion I did something significant that he didn’t call or text to tell me how proud he was of me.
As we sat watching the finals, with a Bud Light and an orange — a Judd Light, as he calls it — on the water, he started to cry, telling me how much he cherished any time we get together, how much our lasting friendship still means to him. If I were the type to cry, I probably would have. We finished our beers and then a few more, and a few hours later I was on a plane, bound for home, another indelible memory branded into my heart.
It’s a funny sport, volleyball. Partners switch to the point of confusion, and many wonder what it’s like to play against an ex, or how it feels when the guy you dumped performs better than you. I have a different perspective than most. As I bounced from one partner to the next, I’d leave as their biggest fan. After telling Jake Urrutia, with whom I won the most difficult tournament I’ve won to date, a 45-team CBVA in Hermosa Beach and then took fifth in Denver, that I wanted to split-block in Manhattan with Jake Dietrich instead, one might assume I’d have hoped he wouldn’t have finished eight spots better than me, as he did.
I was stoked.
Because I had played four tournaments with Jake — two CBVAs, two AVPs — I knew how much the grind, the climb up the ladder meant to him. I could see how seriously he was starting to take the game, and how much it was paying off. The East Coast partying bartender in him was still there, sure, but no longer was he bailing on practices or showing up tired and hungover. He was dialed, focused. He’d text me while I was commentating, watching matches at 7 in the morning despite bartending till 3 a.m.. We’d chat every tournament as he devoured film, asking what I thought about certain teams and matches and strategies.
A large part of me felt bad about dumping him, since we were legitimately a good team, but a larger part of me felt selfish for keeping him around. I didn’t have the urge to improve as I had in year’s past; he deserved someone who could match his enthusiasm, someone like, say, Caleb Kwekel.
It took two texts for me to help them discover that they’d be a great fit — Caleb an excellent blocker and option player with sweet hands and a sweeter serve; Jake an effective defender and tremendous side-out player. And they were, finishing ninth in Manhattan Beach.
Now they’re both ranked higher than me.
They deserve it.
Just as I think Jake Dietrich and I deserved each other, for at least one tournament, anyway. We’ve been friends since I moved to Huntington Beach in 2015, when he was an elite player and I was, at best, a AA. We both have families now, and both of us approached the game this year in roughly the same way: Family first, work second, volleyball a social activity masquerading as work that allowed us to compete on the coolest of stages. And it was cool, to play in the Manhattan Beach Open with Jake. The night before our first match, against Nate Yang and Mike Groselle, Jake texted me: “We’ve come a long way from Huntington my man. Win or lose tomorrow, I’ll be happy to be sharing a court with you.”
We won, we lost, we lost again.
A tremendous amount of fun was had, especially with my father-in-law, Coach Mark Knudsen, in the box with us.
He’d coached every one of his kids at some point. I was feeling a bit left out. When he agreed to coach us for the weekend, he said he was honored I’d asked. In reality, the honor was all mine. Delaney loved it. I loved it.
Another memory in the bank.
My approach this year confused some people. I don’t blame them. Here I am, 33 years old, still playing some of the best volleyball of my life, despite essentially taking the year off from a mental standpoint. I still tried, mind you, and losing still stung and winning was still exhilarating. But it wasn’t the life-and-death matter it once felt like it was. I felt no FOMO skipping tournaments, as I did in Espinho and Edmonton, a pair of Challengers I could have played with the supremely talented Paul Lotman.
I went to Alaska to fish and hike instead.
Lotty understood, because Lotty gets it — the economics are difficult to argue with any type of rationality. And besides: Alaska!
But still, he didn’t want me throwing away what he saw was a decently talented player alas coming into his own. He laughed and told me I was “doing it all backwards, playing tons of FIVBs when you’re an average volleyball player, and now you’re really freakin good and done playing international, wife’d and kid up.”
“As a father of 3 and, in my opinion, a very average beach volleyball player,” he told me, “my advice would be: Keep doing it, man, don’t give up on the international game. After watching you play in Cape Town, you’re absolutely on the level.”
Love the guy.
And I think he’s right.
Can I play at the highest level? If I wanted to, I think so. This year, the desire wasn’t there, which meant that, no, I couldn’t have played at the highest level, because that would mean putting in the extraordinary amount of work required to get there. I had no plans of doing that work.
As I settle into my role as a father, however, and the sheer panic of providing for another human being is wearing off, the itch is slowly coming back. Subtle, but there. This year was special in ways that a season never will be again.
Maybe next year will, too.