Back to the Beach (Volleyball) Pismo Beach 7/2005
The first twelve points of my daughter and her partner’s debut as an Under 16’s beach pair in the Pismo Beach tournament was memorably bad. They got exactly one ball in play which led me to believe that the beach version of our sport must be dramatically different from the indoor game. Still, I should have seen that immediately when I called the tournament director Ernie Santa Cruz about 2 days before the tournament and was told,”Yeah, just show up 30 minutes beforehand. You register in the California Beach Volleyball Association for $25 and then the tournament is $10.”
link to CBVA
In other words, no qualifiers, no arguments about pools and seeding, no club involved, no anxiety about playing time. If you had a partner, and it is sometimes possible to find one the day of the tournament, you showed up and that was it. If you didn’t like your partner, you just change at the next tournament. Well, there was the small matter that this tournament was 300 miles from home and Pismo Beach is as close to Northern California as CBVA gets this year. I came home from work on Friday evening, loaded my daughter into our station wagon, did the tournament, and drove home Saturday evening. I suspect this story might seem normal to most volleyball parents, which tells you how crazy we really are.
With all that “other stuff” that makes for flamewars and JTAWA trying to enlist more moderators (I heard he was using some provision of No Child Left Behind to find them) not a factor, there was also the matter of setting. I don’t mean the kind you do with a single clean contact, I’m talking about the “where”. My last time before this at a volleyball tournament was in a warehouse in Sparks, Nevada. The McDonald’s in Sparks has slot machines. Most of Nevada is better suited for warehousing space aliens, than for large human settlements. It’s actually pretty in a “this should be an uninhabitable part of the earth way”. Pismo Beach has the softest sand in California. You are in the sun. The courts are within a really really long serve of the Pacific Ocean itself. You don’t look down to see crud in the bleachers, you look up at a rock cliff, and a bunch of people more or less in Paradise (not the town in the desert). If your daughter has just shanked four in a row and hit two free balls out of bounds, you can look around and say,”Heck, I’m at the beach, it’s a beautiful day, etc.”
Nature has a way of putting things in perspective. Warehouses lined with sport court seem almost destined to bring out the Hobbesian quality of junior sports where all other volleyball teams and parents must be “nasty, brutish, and short”. I think of the Beach version as more like the sport as Rousseau, pre-French Revolution, might have imagined the game. “Players are born free, but everywhere they are in spandex and not allowed to wear untaped earrings.”
The other small matter. Even though the match was going horribly, it was clear that both teams were having a good time. Both teams were giggling at their mistakes. Each time they changed sides, they slapped hands and chatted. There was a peer ref, but there was no score sheet to yell about. All day the refs would lose track of both the score and the 7 point switch over. Lines were called on the honor system. It was actual “friendly competition”.
The other team, dressed in coordinated pink jerseys, showed signs of having played beach at least once before. This was the first time my daughter and her partner had played a game on sand. They had,however, attended a beach clinic between Napa vineyards for a couple two hour sessions. Hitting on both sides wasn’t necessarily effective. The serve seemed to play an even bigger role at this level in this version of the game. My daughter and her partner started to get a little more comfortable and the match ended 21-13 and with the indoor volleyball dad in me wondering if despite the happy atmosphere if this had been worth the long drive. I turned to the dad who came down with me,”Maybe this other team was one of the better teams here. Hopefully, our girls will win at least one match today.”
Between our kids’ matches, we watched some of the other teams in the pool. Some of them seemed pretty good, not Kerri and Misty good, but competent, experienced with the outdoor version, etc. The 18’s were genuinely strong with long rallies, frequent hard swings, amazing digs, etc. Also, there were guys playing in the tournament. In under 14’s boys were playing against the girls. The boys and young men were also playing on adjacent courts. Okay, there’s the hormone thing of having guys and girls in bathing suits, etc. bouncing up and down, but it added to the sense of “this is something they might actually do for fun when there aren’t coaches and club fees.”
Every now and then, balls pounded from the men’s court would find their way onto the Under 16’s girls matches 2 courts away. Between matches as well, one of the odd things was that a lot of the players were, uh, actually playing volleyball.
So, how did I get here? It actually started in Prepvolleyball. I’d exchanged some messages with a TCA parent whose daughter is an outstanding beach player and an outsstanding indoor player. Also there was some TCA pirate who was as always helpful. We had talked some about burn out, about my concern that my daughter isn’t tall and all that implied for club, recruiting, etc., and that HGH wasn’t in the cards. TCA parent said “You ought to try beach, come to Southern California, here are three web pages.”
More significant, TCA parent said,”We get concerned about burn out during the indoor season, not in beach.”
Southern California broke down for a variety of logistical reasons. For one, the time between Festival/JO’s and School Volleyball is maddeningly short unless you intend to have your kid playing in front of a 7'4” net 48 weeks out of the year. I decided to go local and rediscovered Kelly Van Winden who was offering a handful of beach camps on a sand court in her Napa backyard. If you don’t know California, think oak barrels and vines rather than surboards and sun block. Years ago, my older daughter had attended a Sonoma State indoor camp when Kelly was the coach there more than a decade ago. She also happened to be my daughter’s club coach’s college coach. One of the wonders of volleyball is that it is a closely interconnected world. No prominent coach is more than two degrees of separation from any well known player. The beach world is even tighter. Van Winden’s network stretches from Gabrielle Reece to incoming players at Napa Junior College.
On the phone she had told me,”Girls play beach and always get hooked.”
My daughter and her friend’s take after one two hour session, “This is fun, can we do more?”
More meant driving to Pismo Beach and watching them get beaten easily by two girls in matching pink shirts. Btw, there’s a whole dress ritual that comes with the beach scene. Players do shorts and t-shirt then kind of look around as other pairs start playing in bathing suits as the afternoon sun comes up. I’m not at all sure what the protocol is or whether you and partner must match kinds of attire, etc. After the first match, I was simply hoping that my daughter’s team would either get a close match or win at least one match for the day. Relief came quickly, they won the next match 21-3. One of the nice things about the format, even if you wait two matches it’s not a long time. Also waiting at the beach tends to be more fun than hanging out in front of the dumpster in a converted warehouse or fighting for folding chair and ice chest territory with other clubs.
Gang kids tag, volleyball clubs leave an ice chest and a bunch of blankets.
Before I knew it, my daughter’s team had won three matches in a row as the pair slowly, without benefit of coaches, figured the game and format out. I had seen them struggle in their two brief sessions together with the basic concept of directing your partner where to put the ball and remembering that if you don’t get a ball passed by your parnter, no one else does. They were starting to talk and identify angles, zones of the court, etc. They then dropped a close match after going down 12-2 to a pair with very good ball control. Bottom line, they were both learning and having fun doing it.
Up to this point, I’d often heard that the virtue of the beach game was that you improve your ball control because of the wind, sun, etc. and that you wind up jumping better because no one moves as easily on sand as on hardwood. It became clear to me that there’s another very significant difference. In Beach pairs, players don’t just execute skills or plays imposed by a coach, they have to learn to solve problems on the court. That includes figuring out novel ways to dig and learning to play offense by seeing openings instead of hitting through blocks. In addition, both players need to have all the skills. In baseball, they talk about the difference between being a thrower and being a pitcher. Beach forces most players to learn the volley version of the latter. Tactics and ball control become a greater part of the equation than jump touch and armspeed, hence Holly Mcpeak, Barbara Fontana, and Rachel Wacholder.
As my daughter points out,”It’s also just more fun to dive in the sand than to skid on squares of sportcourt.”
As it turned out, the seven team pool (you read that right) was surprisingly even. I believe 4 teams wound up with 4-2 records all of whom were thrown into a quick four team playoff. Although the peer and parent refs would lose track of the score and the 7 point changeover more or less routinely, it was honestly good for my inner volleyball parent not to have the score markers and brackets to obsess over. Once in the playoffs, it occured to me that nothing really bad could happen with the day. In fact, it was better than that. They actually won their first tournament. They wound up playing the pink pair from the beginning of the day in the final, probably much to their surprise. I doubt that any AVP scouts were there or needed to be there, but the competition was great fun once you got used to points being won on free balls to the corner and repeated drops rather than classic crush the third ball offensive system.
The other interesting factor was conditioning. Teams faded towards the end of the day. Once in the playoffs, there were clear signs that some players were wearing down in the sun. My daughter and her partner had spent most of the year doing weekly conditioning sessions before club practices and that may have literally left them as the last team standing or maybe diving and jumping. Two other things, I couldn’t get over how friendly the other pairs were win or lose and I actually didn’t see a single argued call the entire day. That might have been the result of some volleyboyle’s law of packing a certain number of parents into an enclosed space....I also need to mention that Ernie Santa Cruz was very gracious, low key, and a fine ambassador for the beach version of our sport. His daughter and her partner were also a very solid pair in the 16's and could just have easily won that day.
In the 1987 movie Back to the Beach,Frankie and Annette have moved to Ohio (maybe for Team Atlantis) and return to the beach to rediscover their “joy” and cure Annette’s addiction to peanut butter. It’s probably also the only movie that will ever feature both OJ Simpson and PeeWee Herman, not to mention Barbara Billingsley (Beaver’s mom). This was a long year in many ways where I felt the creep of fabfiftyitis, that syndrome where the only possible joy in the sport takes the form of a letter of intent. I also know that the worst part of the sport is arguing about who belongs on which team and who gets how much playing time. For at least one day on Pismo Beach, it felt good to forget all that. So, even if the Midwest (I'm sure we'll see Sand Performance Volleyball Club or some such in the prairies some time soon) can brag about JO’s, we Californians have the beach. Well at least until this global warming thing plays out.chancelucky